Director: Will Gluck
Starring: Mila Kunis, Justin
Timberlake, Woody Harrelson
From When Harry Met Sally to the recent No Strings Attached, Hollywood seems perennially fascinated by stories about male-female couples who share an intimate but non-romantic relationship.
Friends with Benefits applies this familiar plot to young professionals in 21st-century Manhattan, but it is an old-fashioned romcom at heart, with an essentially conservative message about grabbing love with both hands if you meet the right person.
Timberlake stars as Dylan, a hunky art director who relocates from his native Los Angeles to New York city to work at a glossy men’s magazine after being headhunted by Jamie, played by Kunis. As he is new in town, Dylan turns to Jamie for company. But despite their obvious mutual attraction, each has recently been painfully dumped, so they resist turning their close friendship into a full love affair. In fact, they both scorn romance and swap mocking jokes about the corny clichés in mainstream Hollywood romcoms.
But of course, Friends with Benefits is itself a mainstream Hollywood romcom, however knowing or cynical it pretends to be. And it soon becomes screamingly clear to everyone else in the movie, and the audience too, that these two extremely good-looking single friends belong together. Everyone except Dylan and Jamie, that is, who continue to dance around each other for another emotionally tone-deaf hour of sexual tension and implausibly crossed wires.
Friends with Benefits contains a dash of sharply observed satire and some fine comic supporting roles, notably Harrelson as Dylan’s flamboyant boss. Timberlake and Kunis are both charming and engaging actors, as they proved in The Social Network and Black Swan. But here they are let down by a clunky script and zero screen chemistry.
The film also suffers from the fatal flaw of all such aspirational escapist stories: are we really expected to feel pity for two wealthy, successful, highly attractive young protagonists with no real problems besides the kind of painfully contrived obstacles only seen in movies? Dylan is slightly afraid of commitment since his parents divorced, Jamie is mildly neurotic thanks to her free-spirit hippie mother. Big deal. Even the Alzheimer’s afflicting Dylan’s father is portrayed as a cheerfully comical condition that transforms him into a loveable eccentric. All too sweet, and way too neat.
However, the key fault with this film lies not in its spark-free stars, sloppy script or schematic plot. Gluck and his writers deliver a first half that wittily mocks romcom clichés, including the overuse of soppy soft-rock songs in movies to shamelessly manipulate emotions, then spend the second half deploying those very same corny tricks with no hint of irony – even down to the soppy, drippy, heart-tugging soft-rock soundtrack. Did the filmmakers lose their nerve, or simply forget their own intentions? Or were they perhaps deliberately trying to insult our intelligence?
In fairness, Friends with Benefits is undemanding and inoffensive eye candy. You can easily spend a casual two hours with it. Just don’t expect to fall in love.
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