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Friends with Benefits (2011)
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by Erik Childress

"Maybe There's Something To This Whole Premise"
4 stars

They say that great minds think alike. Though who would have expected two films in the same calendar year to compete for the attention of the fuck-buddy market. Actually that is the great idea being referred to. Never mind that though. Just earlier in 2011 we had a film that did not look very promising, despite the credentials of director Ivan Reitman and the unerring charm of Natalie Portman. That film, No Strings Attached, turned out to be maybe the best surprise of the year so far; a mature, sharp-scripted attempt to tackle the complications of a workaholic's uncomplicated foray into casual friendship sex. The second film, which was moved seven months away to uncomplicate things looked pretty much like the same movie, albeit with the credentials of a director, Will Gluck, who has not exactly inspired confidence with, inarguably, one of the worst comedies in recent years (Fired Up) and a gigantic mess of a second feature (Easy A) that failed to capitalize on the rich ground of a teenage sexual satire. There are many more connections to No Strings Attached we can (and will) make to Friends With Benefits, but easily the most favorable comparison is that it also turns out to be a really sharp and funny surprise that treats its vulgarity in adult terms rather than childish shock value.

Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is a successful art director for an online blog. So successful that GQ magazine hires headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis) to bring him to New York for an interview. Indifferent about the opportunity, she decides to sell him on the pleasures of the Big Apple including landmarks and flash mobs. But her greatest selling point may just be the pleasure of her spunky, smart-ass company. Dylan takes the job, uprooting himself from Los Angeles and begins hanging out a lot more with Jamie. Both are on the recent end of a breakup, him for being "emotionally unavailable" and her as "emotionally damaged." Their cynicism for the relationship scene draws them into discussing the idea of being able to just use sex for pleasure. "It's like playing tennis" according to Dylan though Jamie wants to make sure there are some anti-emotional rules in place before going through with it. In case this all sounds awfully familiar and you have never seen No Strings Attached, rest assured that Dylan informs us he has "seen Seinfeld."

Sex and sex and more sex occurs. But too much of a good thing is destined to come with its roadblocks. Jamie's mom, Lorna (Patricia Clarkson, almost playing the exact same character she did in Easy A) arrives in town, the kind of freewheelin' bohemian that approves of the situation she has basically engaged in most of her adult life. Dylan's new gay friend at GQ, Tommy (a really funny Woody Harrelson), is a bit of a hound himself, though admits to regretting the time he lost actually being in love with one person. Yeah, yeah, yeah, and now you can get married in New York, thanks. Can we get back to the casual sex? Both Jamie and Dylan take their chances with dating, each to varying degrees of success and the usual annoyances and it won't be long until they have to admit how perfect they are for each other beyond how good they are in bed.

Friends with Benefits toys with the idea of suggesting that most romantic comedies are not in touch with the modern logistics of hooking up. They even watch a hilarious parody of a romantic comedy featuring Rashida Jones and Kunis' Forgetting Sarah Marshall partner, Jason Segel, with the poppy songs, fake settings and banal dialogue. (Don't know if I'll ever be able to hear "New York" and "blueberries" in a conversation again without busting up.) The script by Keith Merryman & David A. Newman with a rewrite by Gluck jettisons that idea rather quickly and even succumbing to many of the usual rom-com gadgets without commenting on them in full. Never establishing itself as a satire though, the film nevertheless succeeds by drawing upon the instant chemistry between the two leads and being blessed with their natural comedic strengths in nearly every scene.

Justin Timberlake must be placed on every male's Mount Rushmore of jealousy along with George Clooney, Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks. All good-looking fellas who can seemingly do whatever they want and just happen to be immensely talented and do little-to-no wrong profesionally or personally. His appearances on Saturday Night Live have more than solidifed his comic skills and he expanded his range beautifully as the cocky Sean Parker in last year's excellent The Social Network. The guy knows how to deliver a line without looking smarmy, and as Dylan helps prove there's an undercurrent of insecurity that makes some of the more embarrassing traits of his character so endearing. While known for a dozen-plus years on television in That '70s Show and as the voice of Meg Griffin on Family Guy, Mila Kunis has really come into her own as a big-screen comedienne. In one of the many freaky doppelganger like aspects between FWB and No Strings Attached, Kunis adopts the same chemistry-laden galpal traits of her Black Swan competitor Natalie Portman, only with the kind of slightly mysterious edge that makes her more of a challenge to conquer. She is cool, very funny and may be the best recruiting tool the Marine Corps has after she agreed in real life to attend a gala with one of their soldiers. I suspect there may be a lot more event proposals after guys see Friends with Benefits.

After the almost distractingly rapid-fire editing of the cross-cut break-up scenes, Gluck settles down during the courtship phase and then maybe too much as conventionality begins to take over. Despite taking jabs at everyone from John Mayer to Katherine Heigl down to Nicholas Sparks, it's odd that he would then cast Richard Jenkins to play Dylan's Alzheimer's-stricken dad, a variation on the role he had as Channing Tatum's mentally-challenged father in the adaptation of Sparks' Dear John. Alzheimer's is hardly food for rom-com thought and Gluck kind of thoughtlessly chooses how to reveal dad's preference to go pants-less, but at least we can see an earnest attempt to get underneath the psyches of Dylan and Jamie and how their family situations have affected their relationship habits.

It is almost as much fun to make the direct comparisons between the two projects as it is to let your inhibitions go for standard rom-coms and be ultimately surprised by two sides of an ancient coin. Both films feature the Black Swan rivals in Portman and Kunis, with the latter this time on the receiving end of female oral pleasures. Kunis' That '70s Show alumni, Ashton Kutcher, was in No Strings, and like Timberlake has family issues that help define his emotional unavailability. This film has a gay male friend. The other had two gay dads. The white swan and the black swan each ended up with competition for their affections by doctors, each contain jokes about their periods and Ivan Reitman's daughter even has a very small role here. Above all, each film is helmed by directors who did their best work in years. No Strings Attached was Reitman's best since Dave, his story of a fake Clinton-esque President and though there are those who like Gluck's last film enough, the story of a fake slut, this film is his most solid to date, period. Maybe this whole No Strings Attached/Friends With Benefits thing is going to catch on. I certainly hope so - whether its the real or fake variety.

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originally posted: 07/22/11 02:05:00
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User Comments

3/04/12 Raven Just skin, no story. Why do keep making movies like this? 2 stars
12/24/11 debbie hodgdon not memorable enough, only liked the humor 2 stars
11/27/11 Shaun A Fun movie though not too deep 3 stars
9/28/11 Norman If Mila Kunis would hump me, I'd pine my life away before settling for being "just friends" 3 stars
8/26/11 Gretchen Seitz Ixnay on implied "Harry Met Sally" comparison. Much better than that morbid groaner! 4 stars
8/08/11 danielle heredia Amazing. love Emma stones parts!! she is amazing! 4 stars
8/05/11 Robert Trebor Sexy, but too long (the film) 3 stars
7/24/11 Jennifer Barr not that great 3 stars
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  22-Jul-2011 (R)
  DVD: 02-Dec-2011


  DVD: 02-Dec-2011

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