Friends with Benefits
Directed by Will Gluck
If you happened to sit in a movie theater last January watching No Strings Attached, thinking, this movie is cute, but it might be better with a different That ’70s Show cast member and a different Black Swan co-star, especially if that could be the same person, then Friends with Benefits is the movie for you. Mila Kunis swaps in for her Swan frenemy Natalie Portman, and Ashton Kutcher is upgraded to Justin Timberlake, a less experienced actor who is nonetheless funnier and more likable than Kutcher, even when he sounds like he just memorized his lines a few minutes ago.
The story is more or less the same: two attractive, compatible people decide that they don’t want a real relationship (“like George Clooney”), but will gladly fuck each other’s brains out and also spend a lot of time together and talk about their feelings, which they don’t seem to realize does kind of constitute a real relationship. There are even parental issues to complicate the psychology, just like in No Strings. The most notable difference is that the characters in Friends with Benefits talk a lot about romantic comedies, self-conscious about the fact that they may or may not be in one; they even watch a fake movie-within-the-movie starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, picking apart its score, bad soundstage replication of New York landmarks, and pop-song choices.
I assume this faux-po-mo chatter comes courtesy of director and cowriter Will Gluck. Gluck made last year’s mostly delightful Easy A, in which he couldn’t resist referring to John Hughes, as part of his ongoing quest to prove that he has in fact seen other movies before. The similarly reference-dotted Friends with Benefits doesn’t have Emma Stone to anchor everything with star-making aplomb —it only gets her for an opening cameo, where she amusingly dumps Timberlake in front of a John Mayer concert (ok, yes, some of the pop-culture stuff is wielded with unexpected if not exactly revelatory skill; Mayer-bashing is appreciated and that Segel-Jones movie is pretty hilarious). But Gluck does have a way of luring in talented actors to pad out his ensemble: Patricia Clarkson, so wonderful as Stone’s free-spirited mother in Easy A, plays sort of the flakier flipside to that character here as Kunis’s wayward mom, and Woody Harrelson twists the gay-best-friend role as Timberlake’s sports editor buddy.
For that matter, Timberlake and especially Kunis are good, too. Kunis played one of the less nuanced roles on That ’70s Show, but as an adult she has grown into her cat-like eyes and developed similar comic reflexes; she can play quick and sweetly sarcastic, which is starting to seem like Gluck’s type. She’s given a less original character than Stone’s Olive Prendergast in Easy A—her Jamie is another fast-talking professional who secretly yearns for a Prince Charming who may not be on his way —and so is Timberlake, as the commitment-phobe guyishly masking his pain. His decent talent for smartass dialogue (the movie is often quite funny) has apparently led Gluck to believe that if the characters talk around their stereotypical roles, they’ll transcend them, just as he hopes to elevate the rom-com genre by referring to it. But it’s actually the actors’ chemistry that does much of the hard work.
Which is to say that Friends with Benefits pretty much does work, if not with quite the same snap as Easy A; apart from the Stone factor, it may be that The Scarlet Letter is just more fruitful riffing material than a thousand lame rom-coms. Formula, no matter how commented upon, demands a draggy section of the movie where Kunis and Timberlake are mad at each other, which isn’t as much fun as them lecturing each other on their sexual preferences mid-coitus. The sex scenes also fulfill the genre convention that both stars look great; Kunis and Timberlake’s genetic luck becomes ours, too, because for a movie so proud of its New York knowledge, the digital cinematography, rife with actual locations as a counterpoint to the Segal-Jones fake-out, looks kinda crummy. Date Night, another New York-set comedy, looked similarly cheap last year. Is New York particularly difficult to nail digitally? Do we need to call in Michael Mann? Maybe in Gluck’s next movie, characters can talk that over. I was just relieved that they apparently hadn’t yet seen No Strings Attached; we’d never hear the end of it.
Opens July 22