Monday, July 25, 2011

Friends With Benefits: Thrusting New Life into a Dead Genre, Over and Over

Friends with Benefits
Directed By: Will Gluck
Written By: Keith Merryman, David Newman, and Will Gluck, from a story by Keith Marryman, Harley Peyton, and David Newman
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Nolan Gould, Jenna Ellfman, Andy Samberg, and Emma Stone.
Director of Photography: Michael Grady, Editor: Tia Nolan, Production Designer: Marcia Hinds
Rated: R for all the perks that come with having benefits

            Friends with Benefits is a new romantic comedy that tries to be the Scream of the genre—a self-aware film that wants to both poke fun at, as well as indulge in the tropes of the genre. One of the best moments comes with the film’s stars—the attractive and fun Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis—watch a cheesy romantic comedy starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. They point out everything the film fails at—the terrible music, the masking of Los Angeles to look like New York, and the hordes of clich├ęd lines—but Ms. Kunis can’t help but mouth every word. Everyone wants that storybook ending in the end.

            And thus the film, directed by Easy A helmer Will Gluck, attempts to have its cake and eat it too. It starts with a simple enough twist of a premise about two emotionally damaged people who try to remove any emotion from what happens in the bedroom, and then balloons exactly as you would expect. This is of course the same premise of No Strings Attached, which came out earlier this year. But Mr. Gluck, Mr. Timberlake, and Ms. Kunis have more genuine fun with the premise, and while the script seems rushed and in need of some polishing, it’s a frankly enjoyable romantic comedy, a rarity these days.

            It’s very easy to pick this film apart, starting from the beginning as Ms. Kunis plays a headhunter named Jamie, who brings Dylan (Mr. Timberlake) from LA to New York to become an art director for GQ. She takes him through the town in an unbearably awesome view of the city, the kind that is free of the homeless, sweltering subway rides, or anything else that is covered in the pages of Gothamist every day. But I could easily forgive that because Ms. Kunis and Mr. Timberlake are so naturally performers without digging too deep. Their friendship seems to spark naturally from their banter, and their decision to go for the “only sex, no emotion” pact seems all but natural for two people who are clearly are full of emotions, but have no interest in sharing them.

            And so the sex begins, and Mr. Gluck knows that we paid to see two attractive people at least pretending to have sex, and the montages that follow our genuinely entertaining (and include enough shots of Mr. Timberlake’s ass to fill some yearly quota, I assume). As the narrative spirals, it takes a few nicely plotted turns before it comes to the inevitable lesson that everyone needs romance in the end. Some of these become deathly serious, most notably a subplot involving Dylan’s father (Richard Jenkins), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. For a film that seems so fluff, the film’s truly downbeat second half is a little too much of a tonal shift.

        Most romantic comedies take these shifts, but because Mr. Gluck, along with his co-screenwriters Keith Merryman and David Newman, are so self-aware, the notes felt false. Mr. Gluck pulled a similar note with Easy A, embracing the clich├ęs of John Hughes, but its star Emma Stone was so natural of a performer that you embraced the low road. Mr. Timberlake and Ms. Kunis are great performers and their comic timing with each is impeccable, but you get the sense neither are comfortable with the film’s dramatic arc.

            But when they have fun, it’s easy to have fun with Friends with Benefits. It’s both raunchy and sweet, and feels effortless at times with its laughs. It certainly won’t change the poor state of the romantic comedy, but it at least tries to do something with spirit and energy without following any sort of laundry list. If anything, it’s a great one night stand.

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