On paper (or, in trailers) the new comedy Friends With Benefits bears a striking resemblance to the Natalie Portman/Ashton Kutcher rom-com that came out a few months ago, No Strings Attached. They both feature couples who can't deal with the stress of dating, so they engage in some supposedly uncomplicated sex with their opposite-sex best friend in order to ease that tension. Naturally, they fall for each other in the process, because uncomplicated sex between friends is never uncomplicated in the movies. But FWB is a massive upgrade from NSA. Instead of Kutcher, we get the far more appealing Justin Timberlake. Instead of Black Swan's icy cold star Portman, we get Swan's sex kitten Mila Kunis. And instead of a typical rom-com, we get one that is self-aware enough to make fun of all of the clichés that these sorts of movies typically have. Now that's not to say that Friends With Benefits is the best rom-com of the year -- that title still belongs to Bridesmaids in my book. But it does deserve points for rising above the typical cheesiness of this sort of movie, and I at least left feeling entertained, if not exactly bowled over by the unoriginal storyline and the underwhelming final act.
The set-up is your typical rom-com premise: Kunis plays Jamie, a fast-talking New York headhunter who woos Dylan (Timberlake) from his job at an L.A.-based indie news website to a cushy job as art director at GQ. She shows him the magic of NYC and when they both get tired of being single, they agree to hook up, first swearing on an iPad bible app to keep their relationship emotion-free. Naturally, things get weird when she starts dating a new guy, Parker (Bryan Greenburg). Then on a trip to L.A. where she meets Dylan's family, they realize that their attachment is emotional and so on. Of course, (this is not even remotely a spoiler for these kinds of movies) they eventually find their way to a happily ever after ending.
What sets FWB apart from most rom-coms is the genuine chemistry between the two leads; their fast-talking conversations are very funny and the sex scenes are great. It's two people actually being honest about what they want in bed, without the concerns of trying to look good or worry about hurting someone's feelings while they're forming a new relationship. There's also a great gag where they watch a rom-com-withing-this-rom-com (which is shot in the cheesiest way possible and features some fantastic cameos) and pick it apart. The problem really beings when they realize that they have actual feelings for each other. At that point, the movie gets a little sappy and falls victim to all of the clichés that it's been poking fun at otherwise. The movie's strength is the way it circumvents the ordinary; then it just sinks into it, with the typical conversations about "how do you know when you love someone," and "if you really love them, you make it work." Blah, blah, blah. I was hoping for a more comic ending instead of the over-dramatic goofiness that I ended up with. But for the first hour or so of the film, I laughed. A lot. And that's basically the same issue I had with director Will Gluck's last film Easy A. I enjoyed the hell out of it, until the very end when it turned totally underwhelming.
Besides the stars, FWB's strongest feature is its smart and irreverent dialogue. I've personally never heard the term "twat block" before, but that's getting added to my vocabulary ASAP. In addition to the extremely frank and explicit language, there are also numerous conversations that sound like actual people would have, such as Jamie questioning how Dylan could possible max out an Old Navy credit card. Or debating the worthiness of the praise heaped upon Captain Sully for landing a plane on the Hudson.
And its other great feature is its stellar supporting cast. Patricia Clarkson plays Jamie's oversexed mother who likes to drink a lot and is completely irresponsible. She's the one that taught me "twat block" so I'm appreciative of that. There's also Woody Harrelson, who plays a gay sports editor at GQ and comes up with some great zingers. There's a scene of him playing basketball that reminded me of my brief obsession with White Men Can't Jump. Aw, medium times. Jenna Elfman didn't annoy me too much, so that's pretty much a ringing endorsement for her. Meanwhile, Richard Jenkins is terrific as Dylan's largely pantless father and Nolan Gould (a.k.a. Luke from Modern Family) does some cute-kid magic tricks. And there are brief scenes with Shaun White (playing a jerky version of himself), Andy Samberg (as a weird ex of Jamie's) and Easy A star Emma Stone (Dylan's John Mayer loving ex-girlfriend).
Beyond the conventional ending, there were other things that I quibbled about, including all of the Sony product placement, GQ not being in the right location, someone being able to zip from Midtown to SoHo for a quick lunch at a diner and all of the flash mobs (the bane of my existence). I also didn't love the fact that people kept assuming that Dylan is gay...though he is an art director who loves Harry Potter so much that he got a tattoo, so maybe that isn't such a stretch. Still, even with my issues and the lame ending, Friends With Benefits was definitely a fine way to spend a couple hours, particularly if you are stuck in a heatwave and looking for some air-conditioned relief. Here's hoping that Gluck's next film will be able to maintain the jokes all the way through. Because if he can pull that off, I think he's got the potential to make the next Hangover-esque comedy.
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