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Friends with Benefits (2011)

July 27, 2011


written by: Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, & Harley Peyton

produced by: Liz Glotzer, Martin Shafer, Will Gluck, Jerry Zucker, & Janet Zucker

directed by: Will Gluck
rated R (for some violent content and brief sexuality)
109 min.
U.S. release date: June 22, 2011
Two young and attractive white people of the opposite sex strike a deal to be strictly sexual friends. No, this isn’t a set-up for a joke and, yes, it does sound familiar. Or at least it should. Such a set-up has been seen on the big-screen film many times in the past, but most recently in “No Strings Attached”, released earlier this year. Sure enough, that movie had Natalie Portman striking a deal with Ashton Kutcher to be anything but platonic. Well, audiences weren’t too receptive to that one and (for the most part) rightly so, but they would do well to check the pairing of Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in “Friends with Benefits”. It’s a bolder, livelier, and more explicit take on this rom-com sub-genre, laughing at typical conventions while embracing, while only slightly stumbling during an unnecessary tonal shift. 

The movie has a hilarious start, which shows Dylan (Justin Timberlake) breaking up with his John Mayer-loving girlfriend (Emma Stone, brief and hilarious) in L.A., while Jamie (Mila Kunis) calls it off with clueless boyfriend (Adam Samberg, underused) in New York City. It’s a cleverly edited intro to characters we know are going to eventually hook up. For now they far apart, he a successful magazine art director and she a savvy corporate headhunter who recruits him to take a top dog gig at GQ. He takes it and winds up feeling a little overwhelmed in The Big Apple. So, since he really only knows Jamie and she’s been really nice to him and both of them are young and cute and get along great, well you get the idea. 


But instead of becoming best buds (like they clearly are made out to be), they decide to give into their basic instincts and become carnal cuties. They think it works, even though we know better, and through a series of hilarious bedroom antics and insatiable montages, we see where this is all going before Jamie and Dylan do. That’s right, these two commitment phobes start to fall for each other (although they’d never admit it), which sees their perfect pact begin go limp. The more they find out about each other outside the bedroom, the more they step into the intoxicating tunnel of love, drifting into a connection neither of them anticipated.  

I liked this movie much more than I thought I would and certainly much more than “No Strings Attached”.  It has a smarter and sassier script, by Kerry Merryman, David A. Newman, and director Will Gluck (last year’s “Easy A” was a surprise hit), and its two stars actually have palpable chemistry together. Timberlake and Kunis are entertaining to watch, whereas, Kutcher and Portman could never really be taking seriously, even in a romantic comedy. If only the entire movie could have rested on the talents of these two actors, maybe leaning closer to “Before Sunset” than an Apatow comedy, instead of cluttering the story with broad-stroked supporting characters and predictable plot movements. 

Timberlake and Kunis are playing characters that are easy to follow. They are likeable, funny, and fun.  Beyond their obvious relationship qualms, they aren’t bogged down by issues, which makes their roles all the more refreshing. For a change, Dylan isn’t played as a horndog, as we so often see guys in these roles. The horndog is actually played by Jamie’s randy mom (Patricia Clarkson), who comes across as a dried-out (and clichéd) hippy. On the flipside, Dylan is given some solid family roots back in L.A.  Jenna Elfman has a bit part as his buddy-buddy big sister, who watches over poor Richard Jenkins in the Alzheimer dad role. That disease provides a shift that I wasn’t ready for, and although it wasn’t handles tenderly, it just came across as an odd fit for the story’s overall tone.



Which speaks to my thoughts on the supporting cast, in general. It’s not that I didn’t like the talented actors, it’s just that I didn’t like what was being done with them. Right away, we meet Dylan’s overtly gay co-worker, Tommy (Woody Harrelson) who lives in Jersey and motorboats to Manhattan (clearly a device to be used later). Harrelson is borderline distracting in the role, with one too many homosexuality jokes thrown his way. Okay, the parts where he’s trying to convince Dylan to play for other team are funny, but that’s about it. Then there’s a part where Jamie feels like their agreement isn’t for her anymore, so she starts dating this other guy (Bryan Greenberg), but since we know the two leads will get back together, it all seems pointless. 

It all made me long for more time with Timberlake and Kunis display their comedic chops together, watching these other talented actors work with poor characterization was unfortunate. I just found my self wanting more of JT crooning Semisonic’s “Closing Time” or riffing on “Jump” by Kriss Kross,  since both songs added some great relationship-building moments between the two leads.  At every turn, Kunis shows great timing and a solid handle on the role (besting The Black Swan in this genre, no sweat). 

Both Timberlake, Kunis and Will Gluck surprise me with each new project and I will continue to anticipate any new work. “Friends with Benefits” is hilarious in all the ways you want it to be and sort of disappointing in ways you weren’t prepared for. Still, it may be the best of the new “Hard-R” comedies this year and a happy alternate to a summer congested with 3D superheroes and sequels. 


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