REVIEW: Friends with Benefits [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 109 minutes | Release Date: July 22nd, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Screen Gems / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Will Gluck
Writer(s): Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck /
Harley Peyton and Keith Merryman & David A. Newman

“Shut up Katherine Heigl, you stupid liar”

I refuse to call it a romantic comedy. Yes, there are clichés, there’s love, some sex, and a little bit of heart, but Friends with Benefits is not just the sum of those parts. It is a raunchy buddy comedy that excels despite its genre’s limitations, a fun, witty, and smart tale of two damaged souls who find their best friend and successfully add a physical relationship to the equation. This tale weaves us through the delicate emotional turmoil of a couple twenty-somethings successful in work yet anything but in life, crossing paths and becoming each other’s rock. All that other stuff—the sappy happily-ever-afters, the Prince Charming fairy tales, and love-at-first-sights—are merely ways to play with our preconceptions, mocked and cherished by our leads, while somehow, unfathomably, still feeling natural. Boy does director Will Gluck know how to pick a script.

Hot on the heels of another rom/com love affair with similar plot threads in No Strings Attached, I admittedly didn’t go out of my way to seek information about Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis’ foray. I never saw a trailer, abhorred the blatant Photoshop work of its posters, and sadly had a bad taste in my mouth for the ex-*NSYNCer after Bad Teacher. But then came the startling realization that the man who helmed Fired Up! and Easy A was at its back, a guy who somehow found a way to turn two marginally humorous concepts into the kind of gold I still can’t bring myself to change the channel on. For some strange reason his inclusion allowed me to breathe easy as calmness flooded over. I felt safe that, no matter the intrinsic faults of the genre, Will Gluck would make everything okay. Thankfully it didn’t take long to realize how true those feelings were.

Right from the start we’re treated with a blatant subversion of romance tropes. Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) are brought forth, readying for a date: he is running late, consumed by work; she is waiting impatiently, frustrated by missing the beginning of her favorite, Pretty Woman. Juxtaposed through quick cuts as she maneuvers through the B.S. and he continues to give it, I almost believed we’d get some weird timeline manipulation—beginning with the relationship to shortly find how they got there. But no, this wasn’t the plan at all. Instead, we find they are on opposite sides of the country, meeting their respective significant others for the final time. Relationships have never been either’s strong suit; their personal issues exacerbated by the craziness from two cool kids like Emma Stone and Andy Samberg not helping the cause. This was the final straw and both were ready to forsake the other gender … at least for the immediate present.

And then they meet. We’ve barely been watching ten minutes and already we see the kinship these two could have, their fateful meeting with her as headhunter and he, as the prospective new art director for GQ magazine, her prized asset. It’s in NYC that they their courtship, her charm and assertive demeanor putting on the song and dance to sell him a city far removed from his beloved California. Through potentially violent encounters—kudos to Shaun White for having some fun—incredible heights to see the stars, and a real live flash mob in Times Square, Dylan decides to change his life and put down roots on the East Coast. It’s a rare opportunity and he’d be stubborn and afraid to say no, but perhaps it is also this sparkplug of a tour guide who made the decision easier. There’s no sexual connection or desire for one, though, these two simply click intellectually and the ensuing joke-filled comradery startles in its frankness, biting sarcasm, and genuine humor.

This is what makes Friends with Benefits so good, the back and forth between ‘two of the guys’/’two of the girls’. Timberlake and Kunis are a riot together with chemistry that works and great comedic timing. Barbs are thrown left and right as personal tidbits are shared: him defending Harry Potter as not being gay and she being uncovered as not quite the rule breaker she tries to be, literally by a blink of the eye. Their lives become intertwined as they discover they can tell each other anything and everything they want without fear of being judged, even singing and dancing Kris Kross with complete confidence. It’s a bond built on trust, not emotion. Without the messiness of the physicality of sex or the awkward guilt of needing to be something more than just a friend, they could survive anything.

Unfortunately, the time spent together forsaking the idyllic dreams of happily-ever-afters causes a lull in their active sex lives. But why should ‘it’ be any different than two chums playing tennis? Why can’t they merely satisfy a need with one another and not risk excess baggage? Surprisingly, they can and—I’m not giving anything away that the title doesn’t already—the two bump uglies in what is easily the best scene of the film. Done in as pragmatic a way as possible, rather than let emotions take control, they treat each other as tools for satisfaction, calling out what they want done, righting the wrongs from years of supposed greatness, and actually listening to one another’s needs. All the things most people you know will say can’t happen in the bedroom are achieved and, yes, they turn it on and off without fail, even going so far as to dare each other into picking up strangers on the street. Their candor is hysterical and their bond grows deeper.

Don’t be misled, however, as there are definitely romantic moments to tug at your heartstrings. Clichés abound like the free-spirited mother (Patricia Clarkson), the shadow of a once great man and father (Richard Jenkins), and the burly, homosexual coworker (Woody Harrelson) adding enough fantastic laughs to make you forget his role plays absolutely no importance in the film as a whole. The story is cyclical—airplanes and Sully the pilot are lambasted, Apple Apps are mocked, and the little details at the start recycle into the profound a-ha expression of love at the end—but the comedy is able to make the contrivances disappear. And this is why I can’t praise the film enough. Using all the genre’s tropes, mocked within a hamfisted, tragically bad chick flick fave of Jamie—starring two very familiar television faces—Gluck and his writers find a way to make us forget its manipulations. We get a stellar indie soundtrack, two wonderful lead performances, and a romance that rises above its inevitability, creating a blueprint towards the perfect romantic comedy.

[1] Mila Kunis as ‘Jaime’ and Justin Timberlake as ‘Dylan’ in Screen Gems’ FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS. Photo by David Giesbrecht.
[2] Mila Kunis as “Jamie” and Justin Timberlake as “Dylan” in Screen Gems’ FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS. Photo By: Glen Wilson
[3] Justin Timberlake as “Dylan” and Mila Kunis as “Jamie” in Screen Gems’ FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS. Photo By: David Giesbrecht

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