Dir. by Will Gluck - 1 hr 49 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Pleasant surprises are pleasantly surprising. I didn't have much hope for this move based on the trailer, but as you may have guessed from my first sentence, I was pleasantly surprised by "Friends with Benefits." A lot of my indifference going in was based on dreading yet another movie about twenty-somethings trying to circumvent a traditional relationship model, but instead got both a charming romantic comedy and a commentary on how self-awareness hamstrings some people's happiness.
Going in, it's impossible to not know the basic over-arching story. It's the same romcom plot that has been repeated endlessly (and will continue to be repeated endlessly, likely in inferior forms); Dylan (Justin Timberlake) flies to New York at the behest of a headhunter, Jamie (Mila Kunis). They meet cute (in this case, Jamie is chasing a flier around a baggage carousel at the airport), and on the heels of recently ended relationships (Emma Stone and Andy Samberg in small roles) they agree to engage in a sexual relationship, so long as both of them keep their feelings to themselves. At some point, there's a misunderstanding that causes the relationship to go sideways, and they've both got to get to an emotional point where they can reconcile and ride off into the sunset together. In broad strokes, this is exactly a conventional romantic comedy masquerading as an anti-romantic comedy.
However, there are two mitigating factors. As always, when you're dealing with a formula story, the execution is key. Timberlake and Kunis seem to really enjoy each other's company, and have a steady, biting repartee that carries large chunks of the film. While they're trying to be cynical and practical about matters, there's a feeling that it's not a perfect fit for either of them, and that leaves some hope that they're not just soulless beings settling for an imperfect situation. The smaller roles are uniformly well-done as well: Woody Harrelson in particular is a riot as a gay sports editor for GQ (and takes advantage of another opportunity to play basketball in a film). In terms of execution, the pacing is steady and never lags.
The second, more interesting (and slightly less entertaining) element to this movie is the notion of self-awareness. There's a movie-within-a-movie here, an uber-cheesy romantic comedy that stars Jason Segel and Rashida Jones dutifully acting out every awful trope. Both Timberlake and Kunis' characters have a love/hate relationship with the movie - they are aware of the saccharine quality and impossible standards that romantic comedies have set for people, but still want to have a version of it. There is a reason why this story gets told over and over again: the falling-in-love narrative is a universal experience, even if it plays out in a less-glamourous and less-fanciful version in real life. The characters' awareness of this narrative at times keeps them from fully embracing their experiences (one of their shared traits is a difficulty in emotionally connecting with partners), due to a variety of fears.
Instead of just leaving the character development at that, there is a stretch of the film that's pretty rough to watch, where the audience discovers exactly why Dylan and Jamie are the way they are. In short, it's due to flawed relationships with their parents. I have to give credit where credit is due: it would have been very easy to just throw some more R-rated content in the film, and not really start digging, emotionally. But this is where "Friends with Benefits" turns from lame-ass product into something more worthwhile. Dylan is having a very difficult time dealing with the reality of his father's frailty and his mother's disappearance, and it's not glossed over. Jamie's mother is present at times, but highly unreliable, and she seems to have a difficult time staying anchored. In this portion of the movie, the characters go from characters to people.
I'm sure that there are parts of this movie that will age poorly (I've got my eyes on the flash mobs, in particular), but the core is solid, and Timberlake and Kunis have good chemistry. It's a fun movie, except when it needs not to be, and the run-time flies by. This is a perfect example of a movie that doesn't aim that high (or at least pretends to be nothing more than a slightly more raunchy version of a romantic comedy), but through execution and an interesting approach ends up being more than the sum of its parts.
3.5 / 5 - Theatre