Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Friends with Benefits
Kunis and Justin Timberlake play Jamie and Dylan, friends with benefits. She's a New York headhunter who chases his Los Angeles blogger for a photo editor position at GQ. Both were just dumped...she for being "emotionally damaged," he for being "emotionally unavailable." Really, nothing is particularly wrong with either of them, and it's evident from their first only-in-the-movies, meet-cute scene at the airport that Jamie and Dylan are meant for each other, but in lieu of actual conflict they opt for just shagging, no emotions and therefore no heartache. Naturally, they're both full of themselves as Friends with Benefits, for all it's generous supply of foul language and ass shots must adhere to its formula. What Gluck forgot to add was any sort of conflict-- there's never really anything that ever stands in our lovers way. For the majority of the film both Jamie and Dylan have good chemistry with one another, great sex, fun in and out of the bedroom, and also for the majority are single, so why does the film feel so much longer than it actually is? Because in exchange for conflict, there's an awful lot of non-sequiturs. For un-needed gravitas both are given one unstable parent to deal with-- Patricia Clarkson hams it up as Jamie's flaky, stuck in the '70s party girl mom, and the always great Richard Jenkins plays Dylan's dad, going through the early stages of Alzheimer's. Neither presence is bad, both are actually quite good (same goes with Woody Harrelson's sideline role of a gay sports editor, who pops into mutter quasi-stereotypical rants and only-in-the-movies unasked for wisdom), but add little to the film, which is best when it's in naughty sex romp phase. At which Kunis and Timberlake have a lovely rapport; they nail and strike even the lamest jokes with committed conviction and generous comic timing.
Timberlake exhibits a confidence and handsome sturdiness that he's never shown on screen before, he makes Dylan a scruffy and goofy romantic, but it's Kunis who really shines. At ease with the films peppery dialogue and with the slightly more difficult role as the tough-minded, cynical and romantically jaded urban gal who both rejects and is beholden to the romantic fantasy; her presence distills Friends with Benefits, and perhaps the barren stock of modern romantic comedies with an ease, humor and charm that can't be written or manipulated. And while reality is hardly ever at bay in the film, not that it has to be (for instance, for a film about people with serious, demanding careers, neither appear to ever be working, or really to have said competence in their professions), Kunis, while a beautiful movie star in the making, in a small way radiates the screen with a gentle, girl next door vibe.
Too bad so much gets in the way of the small pleasures that Friends with Benefits does offer fairly well. The distractions of the supporting players (snowboarding champ Shawn White cameos as a sociopath hellbent on Timberlake?) and the uneven pacing that feels too heavily strained on setting up it's own rules work against the small nugget of an idea and the game leads. For possibly a nifty, even slightly transgressive romance, or anti-romance could have proved a nice commentary on the nature of modern relationships. The idea of friends with benefits is nothing new, but the phrase itself is, and its grown into a no-strings-attached thing that has latched itself on its generation, a vivid dissection could have been ideal comic fodder for someone brave enough to really tackle it. Instead, we're given an absolutely serviceable, sometimes highly pleasurable piece of paint-by-numbers romantic fluff. B-