D/W: Will Gluck. Story by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman & Harley Peyton. DP: Michael Grady. (Starring: Justin Timberlake/Mila Kunis/Patricia Clarkson/Richard Jenkins/Jenna Elfman/Woody Harrelson/Shaun White/Emma Stone/Andy Samberg.
Like January’s No Strings Attached, this summer’s Friend’s With Benefits attempts to delve into the modern worlds of sex and friendship. And, if you hadn’t already learned from Rob Reiner’s 1989 classic, When Harry Met Sally…, you certainly by now should know that in the cinematic world sex between friends is…complicated.
The film starts off pretty slow, allowing time for cute Mila Kunis’ Jamie to jump around and convince Angeleno Dylan (Justin Timberlake) to take a huge new job and move to NY. Although it was great and amendable that a film actually tackled and made fun of the differences between New York and L.A., there will always be something tiresome about every romantic comedy set in either city. That being said, at least the cities played a role in the story and addressed real 20-30 something year olds’ issues of lifestyle, friends, and work.
Kunis and Timberlake have decent chemistry and the script allows the laughs to be shared and well balanced between the two. The context of their friendship is believable and murky enough that audiences will probably never know which character to root for. Oddly enough neither character seems to have other friends, which works for Timberlake as he is moving to a new city. But more noticeable is that Kunis doesn’t appear to have any close girlfriends she councils with about Timberlake or their friends with sex benefits. She certainly doesn’t need the stock movie best friend, but someone other than crazy loony mom, played here by Patricia Clarkson (a definite knock off of other characters she’s played), is necessary.
Conversely, the problem with Timberlake is that he inevitably feels like he’s playing himself. Much was my complaint in The Social Network, but it’s something he will have to tackle when choosing future roles. His friendship with gay sports editor Tommy (Woody Harrelson) get’s a few laughs, mostly because Harrelson plays a gay character who is pretty clear about his own sexual motives. Yet his scenes almost play separate from the whole film, bringing in relationship relief as somehow they do not blend into the rest of the story. Yet although, by the end, the film feels long, in the second act there is a decent amount of relationship and sexual humor to bridge into final phase of the film and some of that is because of Harrelson.
Lastly, Gluck, who directed last year’s Easy A, seems at home here with Kunis and Timberlake. He never creates too much of a romantic atmosphere, it’s all giggles and smooches until someone wants more. And thankfully, unlike other romantic comedies about sex (umm…Love & Other Drugs) he doesn’t let his cameraman, Michael Grady, shoot extreme close ups with movie star lighting. However, he is a little too in love with montages for my taste as they were not as effectively used here than in his previous film.
Yet, by the end all audiences will reach the same conclusion and compare Friends with Benefits to other films on the same subject. And unfortunately, this one will inevitably pale by comparison.