I haven’t been kind to romantic comedies of late. Scratch that… I don’t think I’ve liked a romantic comedy since I began reviewing movies almost two years ago. The stuff I’ve reviewed have either been formulaic, insipid, idiotic or flat out abominations. That was a blatant plug of my other reviews, by the way. While you could easily brand me as a curmudgeon (and I can be), assuming that I hate the genre outright would be naïve. Sure, I could certainly find better ways to spend my time but I definitely don’t hate rom-coms. When done right, they can be charming, witty, um… romantic as well as solid date options. Besides, a blind-bias towards an entire sub-category of film would beat the purpose of being a good critic.
All I want from a rom-com is for it to be fresh, fun, and engaging. That’s no biggie! Drop the formulaic plots, clichés and the diabetic, fairy tale versions of the world and I’m game. No Strings Attached, the first of this year’s “fuck-buddy” rom-coms looked promising but in the end, despite Natalie Portman’s charming performance, was a bust. Friends with Benefits on the other hand, delivers. And it does so, in spite of playing to its genre’s conventions. A lot of it is due to its breakneck pace, a funny and witty script that takes shots at the rom-com genre, gorgeously-shot locales, and the breathtaking chemistry between Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake.
Mila Kunis is someone who I’ve always liked. Yea, it greatly helps that she’s smoking hot but apart from being a gorgeous woman, Kunis has that “it” star quality very few actors in Hollywood possess. She can be really funny, devilishly sexy and the girl-next-door all at the same time. Emma Stone (who makes a comic cameo in this film) is perhaps the only other actress of her generation who can successfully pull that off. Still, apart from Black Swan and Forgetting Sarah Marshall she hasn’t really had the chance to showcase her chops as a leading woman. And even though Friends with Benefits isn’t exactly something she’s going to be known for, it’s a big step towards that big flashy role.
Like Kunis, Timberlake is also a guy I like. Though he gets a lot of shit for being in a boy band, the guy is a genuine talent. You don’t win an Emmy for a song called “Dick in a Box” without having some comedy chops. Though he takes some risks in Friends with Benefits (dude’s naked a lot in this flick), I still feel that unlike Kunis, he’s better off playing supporting characters. He was much better in Bad Teacher and even Oscar worthy in David Fincher’s masterful The Social Network. He was also the only thing decent in that piece of trash The Love Guru.
Kunis plays Jamie, a spunky corporate recruiter who after going through a series of losers, decides that she’s had it with the love game. With her mind focused on her career, she meets up with Timberlake’s character Dylan, a hot-shot L.A.-based art director who she intends to place as a high-level creative director at GQ. As it turns out, the charming Dylan too is in the same boat – after being dumped by a John Mayer-loving fangirl. Since he doesn’t know anyone in New York, Dylan and Jamie become fast friends and soon start doing everything good friends do together. One evening, while trashing a silly romantic comedy on TV, the duo, while drunk, start discussing sex eventually equating it to tennis. Ever the gentleman, Dylan cheekily suggests that they become tennis partners but with no strings attached. Jamie agrees and soon we’re off to adventures in fuckland. Nevertheless, this is still a romantic comedy so after a good half-hour of hardcore serve and volleying, emotions come into play and then it’s back to romantic comedy shenanigans complete with overbearing corny pop music, flash mobs and last minute dashes to airports or something to that degree.
Director and co-writer Will Gluck who also directed last fall’s charming Easy A, brings the same sexy vibe to this film and for most of the first half, it bypasses a lot of the idiotic clichés that plague this genre. The constant bantering between Kunis and Timberlake was apparently inspired by Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies like Adam’s Rib and you can tell. Yes, Kunis and Timberlake are nowhere in the same game as those legends but they play off each other very well. During this first half, Friends with Benefits is hilarious, engaging, and surprisingly frank and mature with its depiction of sex. But somewhere between emotions and the dash to stop someone from running off somewhere far, far away, the movie takes a nosedive into schmaltz land. But that’s not too much of a bad thing because the engaging performances from Kunis and Timberlake make it worth it.
Timberlake and Kunis are supported by a trio of Academy Award nominated actors. The always terrific Woody Harrelson steals every scene he’s in as a gay man’s man coworker of Dylan. The phenomenal Richard Jenkins is heartbreaking as Dylan’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, and Patricia Clarkson creates sparks as Jamie’s perpetually horny mom.
Friends with Benefits may not re-invent the wheel when it comes to romantic comedies (that’s likely impossible for the near future) but it’s fun, spunky and benefits from great chemistry between the very charming Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake as well as a strong supporting gigs by Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins and Patricia Clarkson.