Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Friends with Benefits

The difficulty of modern relationships, coupled with the increase of technological gadgetry, have made films like Friends with Benefits (and earlier this year's No Strings Attached) almost feel like avid indictments of modern coupling.  Forget the fantasy, and enjoy the sex.  The rules of modern courtship may have changed, as well as the slang, but the rules of romantic comedies have not, for the silly, sometimes engaging, quick and glib Friends with Benefits is merely and randier, R-rated version of the same movies Doris Day and Rock Hudson made fifty years ago, which isn't a bad thing.  Directed and co-written by Will Gluck, who brings the same pop screwball sensibilities and rapid fire verbosity here that he brought to last years high school comedy Easy A, may be aiming for a When Harry Meets Sally for the iPad generation, but missteps by trying to be earnest and ironic all at once.  For the uneven hurdle that Friends with Benefits never quite overcomes is that it wants to fashion a genuine love story centered around a casual sex romp that spends half the time making fun of love stories-- there's a very funny small part near the beginning of the film where Mila Kunis, after just being dumped, curses out Katherine Heigl after walking past a poster of a film of hers.  And at the films best, there's a smart, talky, randy tartness that's almost infectious, but just as in relationships themselves, there's a bunch of crap that corrodes it.

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-

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