Friends with Benefits is likely to be overlooked by many, because a) it uses that stale sitcom casual sex between friends premise, and b) we just saw that exact same premise a few months ago in No Strings Attached. And Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis don’t get much respect, even after terrific work by each in last year’s award favorites The Social Network and Black Swan.
Get past the premise, however, and Friends with Benefits is a surprisingly smart and funny romantic comedy for people who may not like romantic comedies. I think a lot of people will enjoy it; I’m not one of those people, but there you go.
Timberlake stars as L.A.-based editor Dylan, who is recruited by headhunter Jamie (Kunis) to come to New York and work for GQ. Timberlake was so convincing as the slimy Sean Parker in The Social Network, but he doesn’t feel right in his managerial role here, whether he’s ripping his office door off its hinges to show employees that he’s approachable or chatting font types with sports editor Tommy (Woody Harrelson). Later on, even Amazon.com wants his services, but we’re left wondering what makes this guy so professionally attractive.
Fortunately, the movie isn’t about Dylan’s business career. He and Jamie become quick friends – in fact, she’s the only real friend he seems to have during the course of the movie – and seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
So naturally, as happens in every sitcom with a male lead and a female lead, the subject of sex is broached. Hey, we’re not especially attracted to each other, but why not have a good time together?
But here’s the thing: the characters in Friends with Benefits seem to know that they’re in romantic comedy (it’s almost like the Scream films), and repeatedly reference all the corny sentimentality that, you know, never happens in real life.
This is represented by the hilariously godawful rom-com Dylan and Jamie are frequently watching on TV, starring Rashida Jones and Jason Segel (one of the funniest running gags in the film – stick around after the credits for an additional laugh).
Timberlake and Kunis are effective leads, though their characters feel shallow; I didn’t particularly care for them or their relationship, and wished the script took them somewhere other than formulaville. The supporting cast is stronger: Richard Jenkins and Jenna Elfman lend the film some real poignancy as Dylan’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father and caretaker sister back home, and Patricia Clarkson turns in some expectedly solid work as Jamie’s free spirited mother.
Friends with Benefits was directed by Will Gluck, who previously scored with critics in last year’s Easy A; that film featured a star-making performance from Emma Stone, but was similarly too smart for its own good, and left me feeling the same way: cold.
But for the rom-com circuit, Friends with Benefits stands a notch above most of its competition – especially the earlier No Strings Attached. It’s fresh and fun (in a calculated sort of way) and usually quick-witted, and it just might surprise you.