Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis attempt to have a relationship with all of the fun, none of the emotional messiness in Friends with Benefits, a romantic comedy with swearing.
Yes, this is essentially the same story as No Strings Attached, a horrible rom-com from earlier this year that starred Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. But this movie is tighter, smarter, funnier, better written and better acted than that one, as though that first movie was just a draft that was punched up for this one. I think I could bear watching awful romantic comedies if I knew that I might see much better versions months later.
Dylan (Timberlake) is the head of an Internet magazine thing and Jamie (Mila Kunis) is the head-hunter who lures him to New York City to interview for a job as GQ’s art director. He’s a goofy hipster, she’s a tough-talker — some of which is a defensive put-on — and by the end of his New York trip she’s sold him on the city and the job. When he arrives, they continue to hang out — she’s the only person he really knows in the city and they have buddy-buddy fun together. Just buddy-buddy, in part because she’s the only person he knows and, as she says, you don’t want to mess that up, do you?
But then, after a night of complaining about romantic comedies and romance in general, they decide to give something more than friendship a try. The ground rules: No emotional ickiness, no relationship-iness. Just sex so as not to jeopardize the friendship.
No, really, maybe it will work this time.
This kind of anti-romantic-comedy is as romantic comedy as any Katherine Heigl wedding-dress-stravaganza. (Poor Heigl, the movie itself makes fun of her. She has become the symbol of What’s Wrong with Romantic Comedies.) But, perhaps because this particular iteration of the romantic comedy is still sort of new or perhaps because of the swearing (I don’t know why it matters but casual swearing usually does make movies like this better), it feels more genuine, less like you’ve walked into some horrible Cosmopolitan-magazine version of romance. Friends becoming more is fairly common in the actual world, but in movies there is still a meet-cute, flirtation and then romance without a lot of the hanging out that seems fairly typical in many real-people romances. Sure, most guys don’t look like Justin Timberlake and most girls don’t look like Mila Kunis and most relationships don’t take place in some fairly swank New York real estate, but still this movie, its premise and characters and dialogue feel more natural, than, say, single best friends of a couple being forced to raise a child together when that couple dies as in Life as We Know It, the last Heigl failure.
Kunis and Timberlake have a nice goofy chemistry. They’re both attractive but know how to play off their attractiveness, to make a bit of a joke of it even while remaining magnetic. They are able to keep the movie interesting even when its energy starts to dip as it does when the trajectory of the relationship starts to become more conventional. And while nutty family isn’t a stunningly original conceit, the supporting characters filling that role here do just fine: Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s ditzy mother; Jenna Elfman as Dylan’s supportive older sister, and Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s loving but fading-from-Alzheimer’s father. Somebody always needs a wacky best friend and, refreshingly, this time the sassy gay friend (Woody Harrelson) is Timberlake’s colleague and, much like actual human beings, isn’t just some one-dimensional stereotype.
Friends with Benefits is a lightweight but enjoyable offering from that mostly disappointing genre, the romantic comedy. B-
Rated R for sexual content and language. Directed by Will Gluck and written by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck and Harley Peyton, Friends with Benefits is an hour and 49 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Screen Gems.