Friends with Benefits (2011) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated R for strong sexuality, some nudity, crude and sexual humor, and strong language
Running time: 118 min.
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, Bryan Greenberg, Jenna Elfman, Shaun White
Cameo: Andy Samberg, Emma Stone, Masi Oka
Director: Will Gluck
Screenplay: Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck
Review published August 8, 2011
Mila Kunis (Black Swan, The Book of Eli) plays Jamie, a corporate headhunter who ends up luring a Los Angeles client (and friend), Dylan (Timberlake, Bad Teacher), to relocate to her town of New York (Manhattan, specifically) as an Art Director for GQ Magazine in, then they mutually decide to enter into a non-committal sexual relationship. The emotionally damaged duo soon become best friends, though the relationship does suffer from a mix of complicated feelings involved when letting friends, especially attractive ones, get too close.
This R-rated sex comedy delivers the likeable characters, the laughs, the sweet moments, and the crude sexual humor you'd want in a raunchy romantic comedy, but also does it with directorial zip by Will Gluck (Easy A, Fired Up), pop culture-literate flair, excellent use of its pop soundtrack, and two very appealing performances by the leads. What sets it apart from similar premises, such as No Strings Attached released earlier in the year, is that it is smart, often witty, the performers feel like they are actually good friends, and Kunis and Timberlake make for a good romantic comedy pairing in their seemingly off-the-cuff repartee, not to mention their appeal in getting out of their skivvies, which they do on a number of occasions.
Supporting players each get to chip in. Woody Harrelson (Zombieland, Management) plays a macho gay sports editor at GQ who is out on the prowl most nights for sexual debauchery, hoping that Dylan might be of like mind. "Six Feet Under" alums Patricia Clarkson (Shutter Island, Whatever Works) and Richard Jenkins (Hall Pass, Happythankyoumoreplease) also give the two main characters, Dylan's father and Jamie's mother respectively, some nuance, with their own background stories that explains the intimacy issues that would develop in their children. Jenna Elfman (Keeping the Faith, Edtv) also gets her moment to shine as Dylan's sassy older sister. This is one of the rare romantic comedies where the sidekicks in the story amuse more than they annoy, and one where the main players still manage to score the most laughs and interet.
One of the more refreshing aspects of Friends with Benefits is its gentle mocking of romantic comedy films and their conventions from within the confines of one, as the characters comment on the clichés much in the same way that Scream was refreshing as a horror flick. And like Scream, what was once a satirical streak soon begins to embrace the convention by the end of the film, which will either work or not, depending on whether you enjoy the typically cheesy, would-never-happen-in-real-life happy endings that rom-coms traditionally provide.
The scenes of sexual interplay, while not overtly gratuitous in terms of nudity, are rather explicit in the dialogue. I only mention this because there are younger viewers who might be embarrassed watching the flick with their parents, or vice versa, so you can't just watch the film with just anyone. Going out with your fellow coworkers you barely know may make for a few awkward scenes as well. These scenes are played for laughs, and it's commendable that they do achieve them without being overtly tacky. Credit newcomer screenwriters Merryman and Newman for taking chances with the dialogue and making potentially stale, awkward moments sizzle.
Suspension of disbelief is required in seeing two people as attractive and successful as Dylan and Jamie not at least try to be with one another from a dating perspective. The rap is they are both damaged people and unavailable emotionally, though both seem like fairly well-adjusted, thoughtful people capable of love and a meaningful relationship. We even see Jamie trying to get into a real relationship and do it the 'right way' (i.e., no sex until five dates in), and there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her -- no getting overly emotionals, not clinginess, no unreasonable demands, no inability to connect. Other than the fact that she says she is damaged, she's every bit the kind of character who finds love in Hollywood films time and again. Besides, if people didn't enter into serious relationships until all of their family drama and personal problems were resolved, few among us would ever date, much less get married.
Some of that zip does begin to erode during the film's draggy second half, which contains moments of seriousness between the two friends when the emotional pain of their mutual agreement begins to bubble up to the surface. Also, Jenkins' role as Dylan's Alzheimer's-addled father suggests more serious anguish and both of the main characters must confront their own drama in their families and in their ability to look for and find love and commitment that have been elusive thus far in their young lives. While the exuberance for the film does diminish with these developments that feel too weighty for such a frothy, carefree build-up, we can at least be thankful they are mostly contained within a few scenes toward the end and no interspersed throughout. The laughs and good cheer has already been had, and the film has more than enough momentum to make it to the finish line with its entertainment quotient still intact.
©2011 Vince Leo