Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: "Friends with Benefits" is a flawed but fun romantic comedy

Film Rating: B

If you like Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, you’ll enjoy Friends With Benefits – it’s as simple as that.  The film is an excellent showcase for the pair of them, both as comedic and, occasionally, dramatic performers, and their chemistry is simply amazing.  The film isn’t riotously funny, but it’s hard not to smile when Kunis and Timberlake share the screen, so natural is their rapport.  The film fares best when it puts the two front and center and lets their relationship develop organically; when it takes a detour for the titular “sex sans emotions” story, which is really only a subplot, the film doesn’t work as well, and it’s very disappointing to see the third act eschew much of the freshness of the first two thirds in order to service a handful of terrible romantic comedy clichés. 

But when the film does work, it works quite well; all the major flaws stem from clichés, but at its heart, Friends With Benefits does something most romantic comedies never come close to achieving – it makes real characters out of the two leads, and in so doing gets the audience invested in their lives, struggles, and relationship.  With strongly developed leads, the clichés and questionable narrative decisions are easier to swallow, and overall, the film is a very pleasant experience. 

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Timberlake plays Dylan, a graphic designer from LA who has been invited to New York to interview for the Lead Art position at GQ; Kunis’ Jamie is the ‘headhunter’ responsible for getting him there and convincing him to take the job.  The first twenty minutes or so are very sweet and sincere, as Jamie introduces Dylan to New York and they quickly hit it off.  The two are clearly perfect for each other, and their friendship feels very natural; it’s simply fun to watch these two interact and get to know each other.

Then, about half an hour into the movie, something strange happens – the actual “friends with benefits” premise come into play, and it makes very little sense.  At this point in the film, we have been told – literally, by the characters’ exes – that Dylan has ‘commitment issues’ and Jamie is ‘emotionally damaged,’ but we haven’t actually seen any evidence of this.  Dylan moved all the way across the country for a new job and Jamie opened herself up to him the moment he got there - these are not the actions of people with commitment issues or emotional scarring, but of perfectly healthy, sociable individuals.  Yet when it comes time for Dylan and Jamie to actually take the next step in their relationship, they tell each other they don’t want to be anything more than friends, and the audience asks why in confusion.  They are already spending most of their time together - going out to lunch, attending parties, watching romantic movies on the couch, etc. -  so what’s stopping them from simply calling it ‘dating’ and continuing on as normal?

It must be the title – they have to work it in somewhere, I suppose, and so Dylan and Jamie start having sex without actual commitment.  This part of the story lasts for about fifteen minutes, and it’s the most uncomfortable stretch of the movie.  It’s not funny, it doesn’t feel like an organic progression of the story, and it’s a poor use of Timberlake and Kunis’ comedic abilities and chemistry (though it’s a fine showcase for their bodies).  After a little while, the screenwriters seemed to realize that they hadn’t developed the characters in a way that makes their sexcapades logical, so Dylan and Jamie stop having sex, go back to being friends, and the film continues as normal.

From there, it’s mostly smooth sailing, as the next section of the movie does a fantastic job delving deeper into who Dylan and Jamie are as individuals and as friends.  Most importantly, we start seeing real examples of Dylan’s deeper commitment issues and Jamie’s emotional damage, and we learn why those issues developed.  A subplot with Dylan’s father, an Alzheimer’s patient played beautifully by Richard Jenkins, takes some surprisingly dark turns for this sort of comedy, but is very honest and engaging; Jaime’s mom, who has fooled around a bit too much for her daughter’s liking, helps us understand who Jaime is deep down, and Kunis is simply fantastic in a heartbreaking sequence where she briefly dates another man.  Throughout, the comedy is sharp and the pathos organic, and for a while, Friends With Benefits is actually a pretty great little film.  The promise of the title might even make more sense if introduced further on in the narrative, once we’ve spent more time with the characters.

The third act fumbles the ball a bit by succumbing to every romantic comedy cliché found in a typical third act; Jaime and Dylan get mad at each other, and even though both are well defined, relatively complex creations, it ultimately lands on one person to take all the blame for the argument.  These are the sorts of idiotic machinations that make me loathe this genre, but I will admit that, as presented here, the clichés are tolerable.  Kunis and Timberlake are so mesmerizing and the production so slick that I still enjoyed the ending in the midst of my frustration.  Friends With Benefits unfortunately dispenses with greatness, but it remains entertaining through to the end. 

And no part of this movie is more entertaining than a supporting performance by Woody Harrelson, one so good that I feel compelled to single it out for praise.  Romantic comedies always seem to have a quirky best friend or coworker who shows up out of the blue every once in a while to be funny or insightful, and while these characters typically make me want to drive a rusty nail through my eye, Harrelson instead raises the quality of the movie whenever he’s on screen.  His character, a coworker who befriends Dylan, is the funniest part of the film, hands down, and he has genuine insight to offer throughout.  Perhaps the most important thing one can take away from Friends With Benefits is that no movie can’t be made better by Harrelson’s presence.

Yet I don’t single out Harrelson to take anything away from Timberlake and Kunis, who really are spectacular here.  Between this and The Social Network, I’m quite frankly astounded it took Timberlake so long to get into acting, as he’s quickly established himself as someone I’ll pay to see in just about anything.  I fell in love with Kunis during her first scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and she’s remained a magnetic screen presence ever since; this film uses her better than any since Marshall, and I hope she continues headlining comedies in the future, if not dramas as well – she certainly has the talent.  Since the whole film rests on the shoulders of these two leads, it is an entertaining experience.  There are flaws that hold the movie back from being great, but these flaws don’t undermine Timberlake and Kunis’ chemistry, and unless you have a strange vendetta against these performers, then I see no reason to miss Friends With Benefits.   

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