Friends With Benefits is the second film to use the idea of a man and a woman being friends who try to add no-strings-sex to their friendships. Judging from the reviews for No Strings Attached, the one with Natalie Portman [which I didn’t see – the trailer was awful!], this one – with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis – is much better. It may lose steam in the last act, but it’s still smart enough to recommend it.
Dylan [Justin Timberlake] is a genius art director for a hot website – which brings him to the attention of headhunter Jamie [Mila Kunis], who sets him up for a job as art director for GQ. He flies to New York, from L.A. but tries to say it’s just to explore his options. So, Jamie takes him on a tour of the real New York to win him over, and he does, indeed take the job.
The two develop a great buddies relationship and, after spending one evening grousing about problems with the opposite sex and romance and related bull$#!+, they decide to see if they can maintain their terrific friendship but also have emotionally unencumbered sex.
The first two acts, where Jamie and Dylan’s relationship blooms – and the friends-with-benefits thing seems to be working – are fast-paced, smart and genuinely fresh spins on hoary tropes. Between the writing, the obvious chemistry between Timberlake and Kunis, and a genuinely hilarious performance by Woody Harrelson as GQ’s gay sports editor [and the first macho queen I’ve ever seen in a movie], Tommy, Friends With Benefits positively crackles.
Then Jamie and Dylan start picking out possible dates for each other; her pick for him doesn’t work out, but his for hers seems to, so they agree to stop the ‘benefits’ part of their relationship – which leads to him taking her to L.A. for the July 4th weekend, where meet his father [Richard Jenkins], sister [Jenna Elfman] and nephew. This is where their sex turns to making love – and that’s where the film’s wit mostly disappears.
Instead, we get an arc for Dylan’s father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and a rant by Dylan [to his sister, but overheard by Jamie] that leads to Jamie heading home and avoiding Dylan. During the third act, what laughs there are, are provided by Jenkins. The writing for Jamie and Dylan loses focus and turns maudlin. In what is either an irony, or a deliberate hanging of a lantern, suddenly the music seems to be turning into the kind of soundtrack that Jamie and Dylan mocked while watching romantic comedies back in friendship days.
Mention should also be made of Patricia Clarkson’s solid turn as Jamie’s alcoholic, hippy-dippy mom, Lorna, who has no idea who her father is. Clarkson takes this small role and makes this horrendous mother sympathetic as well as funny.
Director [and co-writer] Will Gluck had great success with Easy A and was, maybe, a bit overconfident here. He gets things moving through the first two acts – at times Friends With Benefits reaches screwball pacing, with both Kunis and Timberlake tearing through dialogue with prodigious gusto and playing off each other as though they’d been going it for years – but once the sex [artfully energetic and funny] turns to lovemaking, the paces slows too much and the dialogue loses its crispness.
Still, even with the film succumbing its unconventionality to bring those two crazy kids together, it’s smart enough and wickedly funny enough for long enough for me to recommend it. I laughed out loud pretty much through those first two acts and Kunis and Timberlake are so good together that you’ll stay with them even when things slow down.
Final Grade: B-
Photos by Glen Wilson/courtesy of Columbia Pictures