Wait, didn’t we just see this movie?
This past January’s No Strings Attached starred charmless lunk Ashton Kutcher, exhibiting zero chemistry with his “sex-friend” Natalie Portman in the tale of two ridiculously good-looking 20-somethings foolishly attempting to enjoy one another’s naked bodies without any of that pesky love or relationship stuff getting in the way. You can probably guess what happens. Dolorously directed by Ivan Reitman, the movie squandered a killer supporting cast on two vacuous leads who didn’t even seem to like one another very much. It was kind of a slog.
Now, a mere six months later, we’ve got Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis starring as two ridiculously good looking 20-somethings, foolishly attempting to enjoy one another’s naked bodies without any of that pesky love or relationship stuff getting in the way. You can probably still guess what happens, and yet Friends With Benefits is delightful all the same. Directed by Easy A ’s Will Gluck, it’s a sexy, funny and very familiar picture carried off by an effervescent atmosphere, and some phenomenal chemistry between these two stars.
In other words, it’s the singers—not the song.
Kunis stars as a frantic, Type-A Manhattan headhunter who places Timberlake’s West Coast web guru in a ludicrously high-paying job at GQ magazine. The courtship is initially all business, with a spark of something else going on during her manic sales pitch. But since she’s the only person he knows in New York, and her annual bonus depends on his job performance, these two kids crazily decide to just keep things platonic. They’re both still reeling from bad breakups with uncredited guest stars that were conveniently cross-cut during the opening credits, so it probably seems like a mature, logical choice just to cozy up with Netflix rentals and late-night chat sessions. Until of course, these two get drunk one night and finally realize that they look like Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis.
The ground rules are strict: It’s purely physical. This leads to a lot of raw, refreshingly ribald banter and a decent running gag about Timberlake always sneezing at the most inappropriate moments. Friends With Benefits is a surprisingly dirty movie, but it embraces human sexuality as something so common, happy and fun that I’d prefer to just call it “naughty.” There are more giggles than grunts, which is somehow way sexier than most modern pictures that try to make a big show out being erotic.
Of course, complications ensue. She’s got a boozed-up, slutty single mom (deftly played by Patricia Clarkson) who can never quite seem to remember who Kunis’ father was; her story keeps on changing. Timberlake’s dad (the great Richard Jenkins) is still living out West and slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Big sister (Jenna Elfman) is quickly getting to a point where she is going to need some extra help taking care of the old man, so it wasn’t exactly an opportune time for baby brother to up and move cross country.
Can you really just keep on boinking your best friend without other, messy feelings seeping in? Well, certainly not in a Hollywood movie. But credit Friends With Benefits for arriving at this foregone conclusion with style and panache. Director Will Gluck made a superstar out of Emma Stone with Easy A, and he sure knows how to photograph his actors while they’re firing off rapid repartee.
Timberlake at last gets to embrace both his natural charisma and SNL -host dorky side, undercutting all that bringing sexyback with goofy character flourishes. (His remedial math skills are never not hilarious.) Kunis’ compact hotness often makes her feel miscast in other pictures, but here she gives the character a hectic stridency born out of insecurity. Those wide, doe eyes work wonders for her in this regard. The two click so well in part because they’re both so deeply neurotic.
My big quibble is that Gluck really needs to relax. Much like in his otherwise sparkling Easy A, every time a formula beat plays out he feels the need to write a little zinger wherein a character points out how much this is just like something that would happen in a romantic comedy. That’s fine dude, you’re making a romantic comedy. Please drop the Gen-X quotation mark defense mechanisms and roll with it.
Friends With Benefits is also very much a picture of its moment, and by moment I mean a couple years ago when it was originally written. Flashmobs, iPads and jokes about Captain Sully Sullenberger take up a mite too much screen-time and give off the faint whiff of trend chasing past the sell-by date.
Still, I quite enjoyed spending time with these cute kids and was rooting for them to get together in the end. (As opposed to most 20-something rom-coms, where I hope they all fucking die from Avian flu). I know there’s a great joke in here somewhere about Mila pulling a Black Swan and stealing her co-star Natalie Portman’s role, but frankly I was too charmed by this picture to try and sort it out.
Director: Will Gluck
Starring: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake and Patricia Clarkson