A few months ago Natalie Portman starred opposite Ashton Kutcher in “No Strings Attached,” a film about two friends who decide to have sex but not become a couple. Now Portman’s “Black Swan” co-star, Mila Kunis, stars alongside Justin Timberlake in “Friends with Benefits,” a film about two friends who decide to have sex but not become a couple. I didn’t think we needed two films with such similar premises released within the same year. But thanks to some undeniable chemistry and well-written dialog, this date movie turned out to be better than expected.
Kunis plays Jamie, a woman who is constantly being let down by boyfriends and wishes that her life could be more like a romantic comedy. Timberlake is Dylan, a guy who has trouble sustaining a long-term relationship. In the film’s opening scene, their romantic partners played by Emma Stone and Andy Samberg dump Dylan and Jamie. I suppose I can see Emma Stone breaking things off with Justin Timberlake. But I’m fairly confident that Samberg would hold onto Kunis for dear life.
Dylan moves from L.A. to New York for a job offer and becomes fast friends with Jamie. The two have completely given up on dating but miss having casual sex. One night the two decide that they can add sex into the equation without complicating their friendship. But as demonstrated in a classic “Seinfeld” episode, sex always ends up complicating friendship in the long run.
At times “Friends with Benefits” tries to do for the romantic comedy what “Scream” did for the slasher genre. Unlike the airheads in a routine Sarah Jessica Parker movie, Jamie and Dylan benefit from having seen numerous romantic comedies. In one of the film’s funniest sequences the two watch an overly sappy rom-com starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. They point out all the numerous clichés in the film, most notably the upbeat pop song they play over the credits to make the audience think they had a good time.
If we had gotten more scenes like that, “Friends with Benefits” might have reached “500 Days of Summer” or “When Harry Met Sally” territory. But the film goes on autopilot in its last half hour with the same cookie-cutter third act we’ve seen a million times before. Jamie overhears Dylan say some things that weren’t intended for her ears, they fight, stay apart for a prolonged period, and finally realize they’re perfect for each other in the end. I know that some conflict is necessary to keep the movie going. But for a film that’s so self-conscious of romantic comedy clichés, you’d think that “Friends with Benefits” would know when it’s becoming too formulaic.
We also get the traditional quirky supporting cast with Woody Harrelson as a gay sports editor, Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s ditsy mother, and Jenna Elfman as Dylan’s sister. Like the supporting players in “Larry Crowne,” they’re all fun but feel a bit too much like the characters we’d see in a sitcom. The only supporting character that isn’t overly colorful or cute is Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s father who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
What elevates “Friends with Benefits” above an average romantic comedy is the winning appeal of Timberlake and Kunis. After some thankless roles in movies like “The Love Guru,” Timberlake finally found a role suited to his talent last year as the ecstatic entrepreneur Sean Parker in “The Social Network.” The same can be said here with Timberlake doing a first-rate job as the puppy dog-eyed leading man. Kunis is, of course, God’s gift to the world.
When the film isn’t following the romantic comedy textbook, the screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and Director Will Gluck does offer some funny and honest moments that make Jamie and Dylan believable characters. They may not be Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, but Kunis and Timberlake are certainly more charming than Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, or basically any woman with Gerard Butler. It just goes to show that sometimes star power can make all the difference in a movie like this.
Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com.