Friends with Benefits (2011)

Friends with Benefits (2011) — This article was originally published on on 22 July 2011.

I really don’t think I’ve quite got the hang of reviewing comedies. As I mention in every review I write for a comedy, the only real barometer for success is whether or not it makes you laugh. However, “I laughed” or “I didn’t laugh” doesn’t quite make for a satisfying article. Furthermore, sometimes a movie keeps you chuckling from time to time but just feels like a bad movie. That’s not exactly insightful criticism: “it feels like a bad movie.” Furthermore when a movie really works, what sets it apart from a so-so movie that just happens to be really funny? I don’t know. Maybe I should just stick to comic book flicks for these articles… Romantic comedies are not my favorite subgenre. In fact off the top of my head I can only think of a couple I like such as (500) Days of Summer, Annie Hall, and Chasing Amy, and what all those movies have in common is (spoiler alert) the couples do not end up together. Oh, and also Manhattan (which ends a little more ambiguously). Love that one. Anyway, even within that subgenre a new sub-subgenre has sprung up this year: the romantic comedy in which a guy tries to be fuck buddies with the girl from Black Swan. Now I never got around to seeing No Strings Attached, mostly because it starred Ashton Kutcher, but I was interested by the previews for Friends with Benefits. Firstly, I find Justin Timberlake significantly more entertaining than Kutcher. Secondly, as much as I love Natalie Portman I like Mila Kunis better (one of many reasons I thought Black Swan was great: not having to choose).

Timberlake plays Dylan, the layout designer for a website. Kunis plays Jamie, a corporate headhunter. They are introduced getting dumped by their respective significant others (Emma Stone, Andy Samberg). They meet when Jamie recruits Dylan to be the new layout designer for GQ (which apparently, in this time of crisis for the magazine industry, still exists). Since he doesn’t know anyone else in New York (having moved from Los Angeles), Dylan hangs out with Jamie and the two become fast friends. Then one day they decide they should fuck. They don’t want to start dating or be in a relationship. They just want to have sex without any of that romantic nonsense complicating things. It actually goes reasonably smoothly… at first. They call off the arrangement when Jamie feels she’s ready to start dating again and carry on as friends sans benefits. Then, of course, comes the character growth and whatnot (or what passes for it in these types of movies). Do they end up together? What do you think?

At certain points in the movie, Dylan and Jamie watch a [fake] movie on HBO (we know this because there is a giant HBO logo in the corner of the screen) that is a romantic comedy starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. They snidely comment on it for all the schmaltzy flaws of the romantic comedy genre. Then the movie proceeds to go through those exact steps. Is this an Adaptation-like meta-referential deconstruction? Partially, but not a particularly clever one. Timberlake comments on the “bland pop song” in the fake movie’s big romantic climax (not THAT kind of climax, get your mind out of the gutter!) and then the same song (“Hey Soul Sister” by Train) plays in the big romantic climax scene of this movie. That was obviously intentional. But is a movie’s unoriginal nature excused if it winks at the audience as if to say “hey we KNOW we’re being unoriginal; it’s a comment on unoriginality?”

For all its conventionality though, I kind of liked Friends with Benefits. Not enough to say you should see it instead of Captain America (seriously, go see Captain America!) but enough to say it’s a cute movie that I imagine would be fun on a date (as opposed to seeing it in the middle of the day to analyze it for critical purposes). The big reason is the cast. A few weeks back I suggested that maybe feature-length comedy is not in Justin’s wheelhouse. In Bad Teacher it seemed like he was applying a sketch comedy performance (the kind he excels at when he hosts Saturday Night Live) to a feature-length film. In Friends with Benefits, he’s allowed to be a real person, and a charming one at that. Mila Kunis has been a great comedic actress since she was a teenager, so her performance in this movie comes as no surprise. On a more superficial level, damn she just keeps getting better looking. The supporting cast also works pretty well, for the most part. Patricia Clarkson plays Jamie’s hippie mother, essentially a reprise of her recurring role from Six Feet Under. The always amazing Richard Jenkins (you owe it to yourself to see The Visitor) plays Dylan’s father. Jenna Elfman, who it seems still acts, plays Dylan’s sister who, much like everyone watching the movie, sees that Dylan and Jamie are more than just friends. Woody Harrelson also provides a few chuckles as a very macho gay sports writer. The only misstep for me is Shaun White, who cameos as a somewhat confrontational version of himself. Every now and then an athlete comes along who has the right kind of charisma to translate to acting. Shaun White is not such an athlete. Snowboarder cameos notwithstanding, the cast carries Friends with Benefits above the so-so movie it could have otherwise been. The film was directed by Will Gluck, who previously did the teen movies Fired Up! (which I enjoy far more than any grown man should a movie about cheerleaders) and Easy A. Much like those films, characterization seems to elevate the film above the simplistic story. Maybe if more romantic comedies were like this, and less like whatever the hell Katherine Heigl is doing these days, I would like the genre better.

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