With eight “Harry Potter” movies, four “Pirates” films, three “Transformers” and two “Hangover” flicks clogging the Hollywood distribution pipeline over the last few years, and “reboots” of movies like “Spider-Man” that are less than a decade old, it might seem that nothing original is coming out of La La Land these days. And this weekend might appear to offer up the most ridiculous example of repetitive thinking yet, when “Friends With Benefits” hits theaters a mere six months after another comedy about hot young twentysomethings hoping to score without emotional or legal commitments, “No Strings Attached.”
Now, consider that “No Strings Attached” was originally titled “Friends With Benefits,” and that each of the films stars one of the lead actresses from “Black Swan” – with Natalie Portman in “Strings” and Mila Kunis in “Friends” – and one might even wonder why the competing studios that released these films aren’t suing each other for copyright infringement.
And yet, against all expectations, “Friends” proves itself to not only be the vastly superior of the two films, but also one of the best romantic comedies – period – to come out in the last few years. It’s a terrific, witty, sexy, and genuinely appealing film that should not only be a big hit but might wind up on my end of year mix list of the best brainy art-house films and crowd-pleasing popcorn flicks.
“Friends” benefits from the beginning from the fact its other star is Justin Timberlake, the pop-music wunderkind who’s proven himself to be one hell of a comedic talent in his surprising switch to comedic acting on “SNL” and in his charismatic drama turn in “The Social Network.” As Dylan, a magazine art director who’s recruited to take over GQ magazine’s creative approach by headhunter Jamie (Kunis), he at first displays just the right amount of cocky charm to win her over along with the audience.
But neither Dylan nor Jamie are looking to be won over, since each have been burned too many times and have decided they just want to have a fun, uncomplicated fling for a while. Soon they’re exchanging witty banter and knocking boots all over Manhattan, free to drop each other at any moment if another potential love interest comes along.
Of course such complications do turn up, and the dynamic duo seems to handle the pivot into straight-up friendship well. But when Dylan is called back home to L.A. over the July 4th weekend because his father (a terrific performance by Richard Jenkins) is starting to slip further into Alzheimer’s-related dementia, he asks Jamie to come along for emotional support and the two find that life, emotions and relationships are way more complicated than they ever expected.
It is in this subplot that “Friends” stands out from the pack of lame Hollywood rom-coms most strongly. How many other movies dare to touch on a serious issue like Alzheimer’s without carrying a heavy-handed message or being a lame excuse for tear-jerking? Yet “Friends” avoids all the clichés that one might fear with this kind of storyline.
The script by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Harley Peyton and director Will Gluck (who also soared above genre expectations with last fall’s “Easy A”) keeps that kind of attention to detail and cliché-busting throughout. Dylan and Jamie are smart people with detailed quirks and interests throughout, and Timberlake and Kunis play their roles for all they’re worth; Timberlake is especially funny in a couple of scenes where he plays Dylan as singing out of tune and unable to dance well.
The one potential sucker punch comes in the side character of Tommy, the sports editor of GQ who happens to be openly gay despite being macho. He keeps teasing Dylan that he must be secretly gay because he’s an art director, and in a couple of scenes Tommy either hits on him or offers to take him to meet guys at gay bars and basketball games – offers that Dylan turns down in comic frustration. The one thing that makes Tommy entertaining as a character is that he’s played by Woody Harrelson in his unhinged charmer mode, but then again, the combination of the name “Woody Harrelson” and the words “sucker punch” and “positive gay character” – even though he’s in a small part of the film – will probably make some BH readers’ heads explode.
All told, this is vastly superior to “No Strings Attached” in every way and – while it’s racy in its early stretches – it’s easily the best date movie to come down the pike in ages. It’s also the funniest movie this summer next to “Bridesmaids,” and is a good bet to become a rom-com perennial.