– Summary –
Director : Will Gluck
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarckson, Jenna Elfman, Bryan Greenberg, Nolan Gould, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: A young advertising executive hooks up with a professional head-hunter in a no-strings-attached sexual relationship – which goes well until they both start developing feelings for each other.
What we think : Fast-paced, fresh and decidedly adult romantic comedy plays on the very stereotypes it purports to despise, which is a jarring aspect in an otherwise funny film. It helps that both Timberlake and Kunis have a great chemistry together, unlike the similarly themed No Strings Attached which had Ashton Kutcher butchering a film starring the glorious Natalie Portman. As a non-fan of traditionally sappy romantic comedies, Friends With Benefits has the added bonus of feeling (against all odds) like a new take on an old cliche, and I had a good time with it.
There’s a point in this film, about twenty minutes in, where the two lead characters begin to dissect a faux-romantic comedy film they’re watching, pointing out all the cliches Hollywood manages to throw in to each and every film in the genre – the emotionally obvious soundtrack, the manipulative dialogue and obligatory character twists,when it becomes obvious that Friends With Benefits is trying hard to distance itself from the very genre it belongs in; at the very least, you get the sense that the film is smart enough to realize that conventions are there for a reason, and tries to either avoid them, or embrace them in a “new and refreshing” way. That being said, there’s folks out there who will no doubt find Friends With Benefits just another romantic comedy, and I admit, I’d probably be among them in an alternate universe. What I found, however, is that I really thought this movie delivered more than the cover photo might indicate. And that, my friends, surprised me.
Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is a former internet entrepreneur made good, and is head-hunted by professional recruiter Jamie (Mila Kunis) as the chief advertising executive for GQ magazine. Their initial attraction to each other is hindered by the fact that both of them have just left relationships with other people, and neither of them are looking for anything like a real relationship. After a discussion about various societal conventions, particularly those played out in romantic comedy movies, Jamie and Dylan decide to embark on a purely sexual relationship – no emotion, no feelings, just sex – until either one of them finds a new relationship with somebody else. As they begin to discover more about each other, the attraction moves beyond the purely physical, and eventually they must come to realize that they might just be falling for each other. Dylan must also deal with the problems of his father (Richard Jenkins), who is suffering the onset of Alzheimers, while Jamie tries to bridge the emotional gap between herself and her ditzy mother (Patricia Clarkson); these trials lead them to the realization that they shouldn’t waste time pretending not to be attracted to each other, but to live life to the fullest blah de blah blah.
The obvious question anybody going into this film is going to be: how does it stack up against the similarly themed film No Strings Attached? The producers and the cast of Friends With Benefits vehemently defended the similarities in themes with their film, and it’s little wonder, considering the sexually taboo nature of the story-lines in both cinematic entities. I’ll say here and now that Friends With Benefits is the superior film, mainly due to the chemistry between Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, which is far more watchable than Ashton Kutcher’s annoyingly obtuse attempts to woo Natalie Portman. The script of FWB is also superior, with wittier dialogue, a more natural tone offset with a whimsical flavoring, while No Strings Attached feels more like a marathon slog than the breezy comedy it tried to be. Both films have serious sides – the ramifications of a purely sexual relationship is examined in the barest of Hollywood manners, but they do have moments of pathos that make you consider the truth of the comedy at its heart. I think Friends With Benefits is funnier, slicker, and has that rom-com spark that No Strings Attached just doesn’t.
That being said, Friends With Benefits has a few issues to contend with. The first, and the most prominent, is the rather lengthy running time. This film tends to drag towards the latter third, as the familial subplots begin to draw away from comedy and into seriousness – I felt the film could have been tightened with the removal of the underdeveloped role Jenna Elfman and Richard Jenkins play, or at the very least a honing of their arc to keep the focus more on Dylan instead. When the film moves away from the Kunis/Timberlake material, it lulls into rom-com cliche, and this is an unfortunate byproduct of having to keep the plot moving by introducing new characters. Woody Harrelson is about the only other shining light in this film as the overly homosexual (and by overly, I mean rampantly) Tommy, Dylan’s sports editor friend at GQ who spends more time devising ways to watch naked men cavort on photoshoots than actually writing about sport. Harrelson’s a scream in this, and of all the secondary characters, he’s the one we want to see more of. The sagging final third of the film almost – almost, mind you – undoes the rather hokey finale (don’t worry, I’m not gonna ruin it), and the momentum built up by the films first half starts to run out of puff with about twenty minutes to go. That hokey finale is also counter-intuitive to the anti-romantic comedy ethos the script gave us at the outset, since it delivers exactly what our main characters described as being the worst of Hollywood cliches.
On the plus side is the starring role of Justin Timberlake, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite singers-turned-actors these days. Having now seen The Social Network, In Time, Bad Teacher and this, I’m convinced he’s becoming the Next Big Thing in leading man roles: I can’t wait for him to tackle a meaty, emotionally charged role to see how he goes. His performance here is without fault, he’s so natural with his delivery and so effortless in allowing himself to look the fool (a scene with him trying to pee with an erection is particularly funny!) is really, really funny. Kunis (is it just me, or does her very name just sound like a sexual position?), having cut her teeth with comedy in That 70’s Show, is up to the challenge, delivering the requisite performance to maintain her equal billing with JT. She’s sexy, smart and genuine, the kind of romantic lead missing in a lot of the Jennifer Lopez/Anniston rom-coms spewed forth by the Hollywood birth canal. Her rapport with Timberlake is palpable, and her screen presence overall sparkles with the kind of intensity missing from our screens since Audrey Hepburn left us. Yeah, I just compared her to Hepburn. Word.
The other major bonus to this film is the ripper script, by Keith Merryman, David Newman, director Will Gluck and Harley Peyton. It bubbles along at a rapid clip, delivering witty dialogue and sexually charged situations in equally engaging styles. Will Gluck, who gave us 2010’s teen-centric classic Easy A, keeps the story focused on the two leads, only occasionally delving into external story-lines before bringing things back to what we want to see – Kunis and Timberlake engaging in breathless, sweaty sex and talking about how un-emotional they are about it. As already mentioned, the final third sags a little under the weight of expected hand-wringing and tears, and the finale seems a little off-kilter with the rest of the film, but the overall impact isn’t a bad one. Gluck and Co have created a charming, sexy look at modern age relationships.
Friends With Benefits isn’t for everyone, nor is it destined to ever be considered a classic of the genre, but at least it tries. Much of the film doesn’t work as well as it should, particularly when the focus moves from Timberlake and Kunis, but the script is fun (and funny) and the leads eminently watchable – and while the tropes of the Romantic Comedy Film are evident even when they’re trying to avoid them, this film is still a good chuckle for the majority of the time.