After seeing Friends With Benefits, the most outspoken and defamatory of romantic comedy haters will feel the urge to reevaluate the direction of their insults. Many of the chick-flicky genre’s biggest detractors (present company included) are quick to write the entire catalog of existing and yet-to-be-released love-conquers-all movies off as an ever-stagnant gateway to cinematic Hell.
But Friends With Benefits, a largely conventional rom-com, proves that a subpar script and the genre’s standard amounts of overdone mushiness are in fact salvageable—you just need the right actors to do the rescuing. So, yeah, we’re saying that naysayers should aim their vitriol entirely toward Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Lopez, and, to a lesser extent, Jennifer Aniston, actresses who clearly aren’t interesting enough to make suspect dialogue and predictable story beats connect.
In this case, director Will Gluck (the man behind last year’s better-than-expected Emma Stone vehicle Easy A) with his unfortunate willingness to allow his film to get submerged in rom-com trappings, has stars Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake to thank; solely to their credit, Friends With Benefits is an entirely acceptable love story, one that starts off in surprisingly fresh ways before culminating in one of the cheesiest climaxes of recent years. Through all of the see-sawing quality marks, though, Kunis and Timberlake inject the proceedings with a transcendently livewire energy, fearlessly tackling some quite raunchy dialogue and extra-provocative sex scenes with kinetic gusto.
Which brings us back to the casting-is-key point. Earlier this year, the film’s central premise, that of two platonic friends attempting to routinely bone each other without catching any deep feelings, was first exercised in No Strings Attached, which is unquestionably inferior by comparison. Looking past that movie’s telegraphed plot movement, the main difference between the two films is that Friends With Benefits boasts a pair of great leads; No Strings Attached, however, crumbled under Natalie Portman’s out-of-place presence and Ashton Kutcher’s doesn’t-have-a-place inertness.
Perfectly matched, Kunis and Timberlake rarely miss a beat. When the script affords them opportunities to play out interesting narrative developments, the leads enhance each moment with charismatic naturalism; whenever Friends With Benefits trudges through painfully familiar rom-com set-ups, the hotter-than-ever actress and singer-turned-quality-actor sell the inefficiencies and let Gluck and co-writers Keith Merryman and David A. Newman off the hook, big-time.
With its acting tandem to thank, Friends With Benefits is worthy of recommendation, albeit a slightly reluctant one. It’s often genuinely funny and even more consistently dirty, though frustratingly prone to exhibiting the exact same rom-com tropes that it so blatantly hopes to subvert. Instead of reinventing the genre’s wheel, Gluck barely avoids getting run over by it. Dude seriously owes Kunis and Timberlake a healthy amount of gratitude.
With Clichés Abound, Kunis And Timberlake Perform Minor Miracles
Friends With Benefits opens with promise. A pre-title-card sequence briefly establishes Kunis’ and Timberlake’s characters (Jamie and Dylan, respectively) relationship woes, with the former getting dumped by her aloof boyfriend (Andy Samberg) and the latter dismissing his John-Mayer-obsessed snob of a GF (Emma Stone). Newly single, Dylan relocates from Los Angeles to Manhattan to start a new job, art director for GQ, a prestigious gig he landed with the help of NYC-bred headhunter Jamie. They immediately hit it off, playfully snapping on each other and taking lunch breaks together.
One night, after a few too many beers, Dylan and Jamie watch an especially generic and detestable rom-com (a fake movie-within-a-movie, with spot-on performances from the unbilled Jason Segel and Rashida Jones); shared complaints about Hollywood’s tired love story accompaniments and personal romantic disappointments lead to a pact, sworn over an in-effect Bible application on Jamie’s iPad: The two friends will have sex strictly for the pleasures, minus any emotional attachments.
Since Friends With Benefits is ultimately an example of run-of-the-mill storytelling, said pact leads to heartache, misunderstandings, strained bonds, tons of sex, and an inevitably happy ending. Gluck and his fellow writers spend so much time winking at the audience with meta shots at the romantic comedy genre that the film’s gradual descent into everything it previously lampooned is rather shameful.
There’s not much Timberlake can do when he’s saddled with delivering a sappy monologue alongside a ridiculous, Semisonic/”Closing Time” flash mob inside Grand Central Station. And its unavoidable that Kunis loses momentum during her obligatory you-broke-my-heart diatribes. That both stars manage to emerge from the script’s frequent dips into lameness unscathed is commendable. And, for Gluck’s sake, positively heroic.
Let's Cut To The Chase—In Friends With Benefits, Mila Kunis Nearly Bares All (And, Also, Gives A Great Performance)
If he’s mostly unable to sidestep clichés, Gluck is at least proficient when it comes to choosing talent. Like Easy A, Friends With Benefits gains from a well-picked supporting cast. Patricia Clarkson fires off some of the movie’s funniest lines as Kunis’ free-spirited, jock-chasing mother, a walking cautionary tale who fuels Jamie’s romantic dysfunctions. Alongside Timberlake, Woody Harrelson hams it up something fierce as Dylan’s gay co-worker, a guy who’s quick to spew out same-sex innuendos and offer blunt advice.
Still, it’s the Kunis-and-Timberlake show. Establishing herself as one of the game’s strongest comedic actresses, Kunis gets her best role to date here, a character balanced with perverted humor and concealed emotions, and always down to show off skin (though, a glimpse of Jamie’s derriere is clearly a body double’s backside—sorry, fellas). And Timberlake, meanwhile, supplies the charming yet internally conflicted Dylan with empathy and likability; for once, we’ve got a rom-com male who doesn’t make us want to cringe.
Together, Kunis and Timberlake have a natural, effortless chemistry, ripping through extended, rapid back-and-forth dialogue and completely going for it during almost-fully exposed sex romps, including genuinely funny plays on oral pleasures and post-ejaculation exclamations.
Frankly, they deserve better than Friends With Benefits, an unexpectedly worthwhile romantic comedy that sells itself short in the end. One thing’s for sure, though: Hollywood’s producers would be wise to give Kunis and Timberlake more offers of this ilk. The rom-com genre isn’t going anywhere, folks—we might as well suffer through them with the best possible performers.