Will Gluck is a filmmaker who’s only half clever who thinks he’s too clever by half. His characters are so prone to winking at the camera one could be forgiven for thinking that Morse Code is involved, and the constant admission that the movies are adhering to formula while gently ridiculing it doesn’t prove insightful.
Nonetheless, “Friends with Benefits” is the superior film this year about two attractive people that decide to give consequence-free coitus a try. The first, “No Strings Attached,” was unwatchable, vulgar trash starring Natalie Portman as the world’s least convincing adult (her Oscar was basically for playing a child) and Ashton Kutcher, the world’s least anything (his finest work remains as the abused casino patron in “Reindeer Games”).
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Directed by the once competent Ivan Reitman, the film wholly lacked charm, believable characters, and decency. Gluck, director of “Fired Up!” and “Easy A,” is at times able to surmount his own smugness as a filmmaker and thus come out with a perfectly serviceable romantic comedy, albeit one not deserving of much more praise than that.
“Friends with Benefits” features better and even more attractive talent in the form of Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, who make the premise work because they actually have chemistry in the friend mode.
Timberlake plays a hotshot blogger (this is almost an oxymoron), Kunis a headhunter. Jamie brings Dylan to New York City, where he signs up with GQ magazine and moves into a luxurious apartment more suited to the real Justin Timberlake than any magazine writer I’ve ever heard of.
Naturally, not long passes before they’ve hammered out a relationship based on friendship and sex, ensuring that some considerable emotional wrangling occurs before they just get to the point and change their relationship statuses on Facebook. Fodder for the comments section: do these arrangements ever work out well in real life?
“Friends with Benefits” wholly earns its R-rating with simulated sex and ample discussion of the act, but the tone is one of enjoyment and growing affection. It’s not uproarious, but there are more laughs per half hour than on any CBS sitcom, which passes the minimum number required for a screen comedy to claim effectiveness. “No Strings Attached” came with an unintentional awkwardness and dearth of romantic chemistry that made the casualness of the sex far dirtier than it had to be, which could have been forgiven had the film actually been funny (it wasn’t).
Kunis wears the role of sexy guy’s girl like a glove, that sort of cinematic woman who just about any man would kill for a date with yet struggles to find Mr. Right at the convenience of the script. Her effervescence is, unlike her “Black Swan” co-star Portman’s, one that can appeal to a more mature mindset instead of only those whose romantic impulses are stirred by childish behavior and fluttering eyes.
Timberlake has shown considerable improvement since his acting career began, conveying convincing sensitivity throughout. While Kutcher couldn’t be less believable as a sensitive, heartbroken professional, Timberlake has an ease to him, a lack of something to prove that goes far here. Most importantly, he conveys convincing sensitivity during dramatic scenes with Kunis and the fine character actor Richard Jenkins, who plays his Movie Alzheimer’s-afflicted father.
Despite the script’s massively irritating pokes at the genre, there is some genuine genre insight in how it skirts some tropes, such as villainous rival suitors, although it indulges too many others, including ones it explicitly ridicules. The film’s gags at the expense of silly romantic comedies, especially in the final scene, serve as awkward reminders of what we just watched.
Author’s Note: Movie Alzheimer’s is an unfortunate disease often afflicting the parents and grandparents of film protagonists. It’s much like regular Alzheimer’s, only its sufferers are able to summon lucidity at important moments in the script, as well as manage to look handsome enough not to seriously sadden the audience. Roger Ebert has oft written about this terrible ailment, but with the help of good screenwriters, this disease may one day be eradicated.