Friday, July 22, 2011

Friends With Benefits

Dick-In-A-Box To Go, Served With Side Orders Of Vagina For An Easy "F"

Mila Kunis as Jamie and Justin Timberlake as Dylan in Will Gluck's comedy "Friends With Benefits". 
Sony Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, July 22, 2011

The above headline for this review is crass and vulgar -- and my sincere apologies to those offended.  I do think however, that the headline encapsulates the bare bones of Will Gluck's latest comedy "Friends With Benefits", a film that swims in the shallowest end of the pool of the Hollywood romantic comedy genre. 

Already on screen this year as "No Strings Attached", in "Friends With Benefits" Mr. Gluck ("Easy A") explores sex without attachment, not in a "Carnal Knowledge" way but in a fear-of-gay-people way.  Lacking the smarts and nuance of "(500) Days Of Summer" -- the best Hollywood romantic comedy in at least ten years -- "Friends With Benefits" earns an easy "F" for reasons beyond its tiresome gay-bashing, which alone makes the film fifteen minutes longer.

Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is a photo-shoot editor for GQ, arriving at that New York City job from Los Angeles, lured to the Big Apple by employment headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis).  Dylan takes one look at Jamie as she bends over and declares that it's "time to play tennis."  Jamie umpires their bedroom action with rules.  Dylan adds his own.  Their net play lacks an emotional volley, until lobs of jealousy and regret paint the baselines of their physical interactions. 

Jamie and Dylan agree to stop having sex and to remain solely friends without the physical or beyond.  We know that won't be easy for them.  Each has scarred single parents (Patricia Clarkson and Richard Jenkins respectively) who encourage them to make a deeper commitment.  Jamie gently chides Dylan for his lack of friends ("I'm the only friend you have!"), yet she doesn't have any either.  There's no "Bridesmaids" sisterhood for Jamie to confide in. 

"Friends With Benefits" trafficks in safe, sunny atmospheres, a neatness in its cutesy-cute nonsense and an alienation from contemporary social and economic realities.  Jamie stays afloat as a headhunter despite a brutal recession.  Dylan's Manhattan apartment looks bigger than the toniest penthouses in Battery Park City, Turtle Bay or Yorkville.  Furthermore, New York City is full of intelligent, engaging, beautiful, attractive, sexy women.  Full of them.  Somehow, either due to its commitment to focus on its players or to the kind of oversight in "Going The Distance", "Friends With Benefits" largely ignores these women, even as background players.  In a city that has such strong sexual energy couldn't Dylan fast-forward past Jamie if he supposedly eschewed monogamy?  Presumably a high-profile GQ man would likely have little trouble bedding a member of the opposite sex in Gotham City.  Certainly Dylan has no difficulty flouting his inhabitant's musical chops in a film that salutes 90s rap duo Kriss Kross.  ("Bad Teacher" saluted them too.)

"Friends With Benefits" features good chemistry between Mr. Timberlake (in his first lead role) and Mila Kunis ("Black Swan", "The Book Of Eli", "Extract".)  Both leads are engaging enough to hold our interest.  Their banter isn't as rapid-fire as the energetic pillow talk of Howard Hawks' day but the couple has their moments.  Ms. Kunis shines as a very likable single professional particularly when on screen with Ms. Clarkson, ironically lukewarm as Jamie's boozy mother.  Though better in the aforementioned and recent "Bad Teacher" in a supporting role, Mr. Timberlake excels late as the lead in Mr. Gluck's film.  You wonder why scenes with Mr. Jenkins and the talented star weren't a larger anchor for this comedy to wrap itself around.  The film's supposed revelation is that Dylan and Jamie's parents are the biggest reason for their children's lack of emotional investment in intimacy, but the very good father-son exchanges arrive too late to save this dopey venture. 

It is well-established that the Hollywood romantic comedy genre is severely troubled.  "Friends With Benefits" is, for all its attempts to skewer romance, just moderately funny.  The film quickly falls flat, riddled with humorless cameos, repetitive references that fizzle, poor editing, obvious A.D.R. (automatic dialogue replacement) and a character trait inconsistency in Dylan representing sloppiness in its writing.  Dylan confidently stands on the roof of one of New York City's tallest buildings several times but later reveals he's afraid of heights in a scene that doesn't belong.  Woody Harrelson, initially funny, fast becomes a weak sounding board for the film's faint attempt at social commentary.  Playing a sports editor Mr. Harrelson's character is arguably the film's biggest distraction as a self-loathing gay man playing on well-worn stereotypes.

Mr. Gluck and his team of screenwriters make no bones about the fact that they tire of the cheesiest romantic comedies on television and film.  "Friends With Benefits" tries to escape such flavored trappings but only ends up emulating them.  It's a tough, risky venture for the film's makers: to announce that you will uproot the conventions of a film genre, only to become the very film that your characters spend half their time tossing popcorn at.

While I laughed at times I felt "Friends With Benefits" was unsure of itself and lacked the confidence of any convictions it advertised.  The film tries to convince us of its strength as a fresh comedy as much as it reassures audiences of Dylan's heterosexuality.  (In one scene Dylan also worries about feeling emasculated, and sometimes he's two steps from being the ultimate "sissy", a type that Mr. Timberlake has unabashed fun with.)  The men in the film are perennial juveniles, with their pants either too tight or off.  The women are the film's voices of reason. 

Ultimately, Mr. Gluck, who has many gorgeous, airy shots of New York and Los Angeles skyline on display, wastes energy in areas that are predictable, stale or dull.  "Friends With Benefits" doesn't know whether it wants to play with its genre or play with itself, and it does more of the latter most of the time.

With: Jenna Elfman, Bryan Greenberg, Nolan Gould and several actors and celebrities you will recognize instantly.

"Friends With Benefits" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content and language.  The film's running time is one hour and 49 minutes.

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