EXPECTATIONS: Hey guys, did you know that this movie Friends With Benefits is extremely similar in plot to another movie that was released earlier this year called No Strings Attached? This is basically all the Internet has been able to say about this film for months, which I guess makes sense, seeing as it's the first time this has ever happened. I honestly don't care about that, because I have high hopes for this spin on that story. The lack of Ashton Kutcher is just one of the many advantages this movie has over its counterpart. Another is writer/director Will Gluck, who made last year's incredibly enjoyable Easy A. If we factor in a cast full of actors I enjoy, I'm actually looking forward to watching whichever movie this is.
REALITY: When a movie spends its first five minutes talking about how John Mayer's music and Katherine Heigl's movies are both pandering and terrible, it bodes well for the remaining 115 minutes.
Well hello, ladies. Guess who's bringing sexy back again?
Friends With Benefits follows magazine editor Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and job recruiter Jamie (Mila Kunis) as they meet and form a steady friendship after being dumped by their respective significant others, played by other famous people whose cameos were spoiled by the trailers. One night while watching a generic romantic comedy (featuring cameos NOT spoiled by the trailers), the two discuss their romantic failings and attempt to approach having sex as just a physical act between two people. ("Like playing tennis" is the metaphor they keep using over and over.) This isn't exactly breaking new ground, because once again, it's not like they invented casual sex. What I did find truly interesting was what immediately follows.
When Dylan and Jamie first get into bed, what follows is an incredibly graphic and realistic sex scene. (Movie's rated R for a reason, kids.) Now, when I say "realistic", I don't mean "Dude, I think they're really doing it hurr hurr hurr." I mean it's portrayed like two people being completely honest with their sexual desires and also their inadequacies. There's plenty of "stop doing that" and "Okay, my butt is cramping" and all the awkward, embarrassing, and quite frankly hilarious things real people actually do in bed together. For the first hour, at least, the movie doubles as both a deconstruction of the rom-com genre and a brutally honest look at both friendship and sexuality. Also, butt shots of both genders. There ya go.
To clarify: these three are just friends. There are no benefits here.Of course, this doesn't last forever, and the two characters fall in love, which is to be expected. What's unexpected is the manner in which it happens. We get a look into each character's background, meeting both Jamie's serial-divorcee mother (Patricia Clarkson) and Dylan's Alzheimer's-ridden father (Richard Jenkins). I want to focus on Jenkins' performance here, because it adds a strong dose of humanity, but it's still funny. He's aware of his situation, and that makes him the perfect person to fulfill the "advice from an elder" trope, but what's more important is that his performance shows that it's okay to laugh at tragedy. A man taking his pants off in public because of his disease is tragic, but it's still a pantsless man, and that's funny. The whole issue adds to the basic feel of the movie, which is "what if we had real people in movie situations?"
Will Gluck is an interesting director, and the amount of enjoyment you get out of this movie depends entirely upon how much you enjoy blatantly self-referential humor. Gluck is very much a genre director, teetering on the level of Fanboy. He's not unlike Edgar Wright in this regard, the primary difference being Gluck's films are (wrongfully) marketed at girls. The primary message of Easy A was "'80s films sure were great! I love them!" while Friends With Benefits' main theme is "Romantic Comedies sure are ridiculous! I also like them!"
As this film pokes fun of the romantic-comedy genre, it also makes it a point to hit every single cliche on the rom-com checklist. Somehow this is okay, because the film is completely aware of this, but it does lead to some unnecessary segments that cause the movie to drag. For example, at one point Jamie tries to date someone else and it doesn't work out. Why? Because that's what happens at about the fifty-five minute mark in these movies. There's a wacky improbable occurrence at a major landmark! Why? Because we're an hour and fifteen minutes in. These aren't big issues, but they bog down an otherwise strong story, and cause major pacing problems in the film's second act.
The script isn't stellar, but it is clever. It does rely heavily on "New York is like this, LA is like that" jokes that got old after about 1997. However, Kunis and Timberlake work so well together that even when the jokes fall flat, their delivery doesn't. There is one other major misstep keeping Friends With Benefits from being a great movie, and that's Woody Harrelson's character, Tommy, the token gay friend. (All romantic comedies need a gay friend.)
At first, this character seemed progressive, because the movie was unafraid to have him make gay jokes, but also portray him as a good friend and advice-giver, as well as a basketball-playing sports reporter. They also point out that Tommy has been in love before, presumably with another gay man, and though he loves women, he's just attracted to men and can't help that. I found this to be a refreshing and interesting position for a movie to take. However, as the movie progresses from "RomCom Sendup" to "Standard RomCom," he becomes a one-note dick-loving caricature. (Note: Do not Google "dick-loving caricature.")
I make a big point of this because the notes I have describing Tommy's character can be applied to the film as a whole: It's a good idea that's fun to watch, and it could have been done better, but we've seen it done a lot worse.
MINORITY REPORT: I always thought a "friend with benefits" was someone you hung around with who never worked but always had money to get high with. - Ian "ProfessorClumsy" Maddison
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