If I had the ability to time travel (and who’s to say I don’t, because I’d never tell you if I did) and felt inclined to show a movie to the citizens of the ’20s or ’30s that would fully capture for them life in the 21st Century because I wouldn’t be able to take them there myself, I think I’d choose “Friends with Benefits.” For one, it’s predictable romance — that much hasn’t changed in 80-90 years. For another, the presence of technology is rampant, which would awe them while also proving another thing that hasn’t changed in 80-90 years: product placement. In all sincerity, however, Will Gluck (“Easy A”) has crafted yet another comedy that’s savvy to its audience, and though the contemporary attitudes, humor and references come heavy-handed at times, he captures our sensibilities and can identify the talent that can make that writing work.
The only thing the screenplay doesn’t write its way around is the formula to which the film’s premise inextricably links itself. As funny and even touching as the writing can get, it can’t outrun the predictability factor of two friends who try having a relationship built on emotionless sex. Dylan (Justin Timberlake) moves out to New York City from Los Angeles thanks to Jamie (Mila Kunis), a head hunter who sets him up at GQ. Knowing nobody in the Big Apple, Dylan spends a lot of time with Jamie and they connect over bad past relationships and some healthy sarcasm. Each plagued by their own issues, they determine they could try sex without feelings.
Yup, we know how this story goes; we even had a refresher course in January with “No Strings Attached,” a botched exercise to say the least. What that film lacked were (outside of Natalie Portman) the talents that “Benefits” has to sell us this recycled story as if brand new.
It’s a tough sell, so any measure of success should be hailed a victory. For starters, Kunis and Timberlake are funny people — sincerely funny people. Undoubtedly improvisation was involved, but they understand the material and they make it natural and honest (as well as hilarious often times). Maybe more importantly, the supporting characters defy the norm of best friends and roommates. There’s Woody Harrelson as a charismatic stereotype-breaking gay colleague of Dylan’s at GQ, Patricia Clarkson as the free-wheeling and somewhat unmotherly mother to Jamie and other that pop up along the way. Certainly they only exist to provide the key advice necessary in these types of rom-coms, but their characters serve that purpose in fresher ways.
Although he didn’t write “Easy A,” Gluck helped pen this film using similar techniques to try and subvert the rampant clichés. Much in the way that “Easy A” (which gets a shout out in the airport scene at the beginning if you watch closely) mixed modern humor with homage to teen comedies of the John Hughes variety, “Friends with Benefits” both honors romantic comedies and calls them out on their crap. Jamie is a hopeless romantic who despises the movies for warping her views on love and as she and Dylan drink beer and broach the subject of sex for the first time, they’re even watching a rom-com, albeit a made-up one “starring” Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. The extra pinch of satire softens the fact that we all know even this film will descend into similar mushiness because that’s what these movies do. The fact that we still embrace this obvious outcome speaks volumes to how well “Friends with Benefits” avoids being the awfulness its premise suggests.
Occasionally the film struggles to balance its excessive contemporary humor with moments of actual sincerity and a few characters and subplots (such as Dylan’s family with his troubled father played by Richard Jenkins and his sister played by Jenna Elfman) though well done, feel out of place or unnecessary. Otherwise, the jokes hit and the sentimentality takes root as needed. Although I could’ve laughed half as much as I did at some of the jokes, the cast proves to make the difference in feeling the sting of some of the mediocre humor versus letting it slide.
“Friends with Benefits” could’ve been a disaster with its recycled story, but it’s not and that alone warrants praise. If the same talents, comic sensibility and general outlook on how to make a comedy had been applied to even a slightly more original premise, you’d be looking at gold, but for now I’ll celebrate that a filmmaker went up against a studio’s desire to make a generic and formulated R-rated sex comedy and largely triumphed.
Friends with Benefits
Directed by Will Gluck
Written by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, Harley Peyton
Starring: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson