Boy meets girl. Boy enters casual sexual friendship with girl. Complications arise. Conflict ensues. Boy falls in love with girl: It's a tired formula moviegoers know well (most recently from Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached), but in the case of Friends With Benefits, it works.
Directed by Will Gluck ( Easy A), the film is a witty rom-com for the smart-phone generation. Gen-Yers may enjoy watching escapist tripe as much as anyone, but they are savvy consumers who don't buy into bull. Friends With Benefits stands out from similar movies for its self-awareness and attempt at authenticity. By poking fun at its genre and the clichés that come with the rom-com territory (in one scene, the protagonists watch and ridicule a sappy movie-within-a-movie, starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones in cameos), the film's creators seem to say: "We know the drill, you know the drill, but that won't stop us from enjoying the process."
Friends With Benefits follows Jamie (Mila Kunis), a New York headhunter who recruits L.A.-based Dylan (Justin Timberlake) to the Big Apple for a job as art director of the men's magazine GQ. After striking up a whirlwind friendship, the two decide to add casual sex to the mix, predictably complicating their feelings toward each other.
Onscreen sparks fly between Timberlake and Kunis (whose comfortable performance as a sassy, independent woman is characteristic of her roles in That '70s Show and Black Swan). Unlike the mismatched Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached, their chemistry and likeability - not to mention eye-candy status - is what makes this movie click.
In his first leading role, Timberlake plays it safe as the nice guy, turning in a decent, by-the-books performance that could have been filled by most other Hollywood hunks. Ironically, despite Timberlake's desire to distance himself from his boy-band past, the singer-actor gets the most laughs when his character serenades Jamie with Semisonic's Closing Time while doing the dirty.
Patricia Clarkson's scene-stealing turn as Jamie's freewheeling mother Lorna (a role she plays with equal effect in Easy A) leads a strong supporting cast that includes Woody Harrelson as GQ's aggressively gay sports editor. Fun cameos by Emma Stone ( The Help) and Andy Samberg (of Saturday Night Live fame) as Dylan and Jamie's ex-lovers, and Olympic snowboarder Shaun White as an unstable version of himself, only add to the onscreen dynamics.
But it's the film's dialogue that pushes Friends With Benefits beyond the rom-com stereotype. Although not laugh-out-loud funny, the witty banter between Jamie and Dylan (at its peak during their hilariously raunchy sex scenes) is pretty realistic - noteworthy for a genre that usually sticks to hackneyed phrases.
Their quick back-and-forth matches the movie's fast pace, heightened by the rampant use of iPads, YouTube and apps throughout. Although screenwriters Gluck, Keith Merryman and David Newman never reach the level of funny achieved in Easy A, Gluck's previous directorial effort, they manage to similarly inject humorous pop cultural references into the dialogue - a running joke about Dylan's questionable Harry Potter lightning-bolt tattoo is repeated to great comic effect.
Ultimately though, Friends With Benefits has a formula that it follows - and cliché is inescapable: In one scene, a spurned Jamie says to Dylan, "I actually thought you were different … With friends like you, who needs friends?"
The film hits a slow spot near the end with a subplot involving Dylan's father, Mr. Harper (Richard Jenkins), who is suffering from Alzheimer's. While their strained relationship helps develop Dylan's character, the scene in which Harper gives his son a pep talk on pursuing the woman of his dreams feels clunky and anticlimactic. Only after this stumbling block does the movie build to a satisfying conclusion: sweet, but not saccharine. Over all, Friends With Benefits is your standard romantic-comedy fare - but with benefits.
Friends With Benefits
- Directed by Will Gluck
- Written by Keith Merryman, David Newman and Will Gluck
- Starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake
- Classification: 14A