REVIEW: Friends With Benefits

Friends With Benefits
Directed by: Will Gluck
Written by: Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, & Will Gluck (screenplay)
Starring: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Patricia Clarkson, and Woody Harrelson

It’s always a good thing when a modern romance reminds you of the classics, when men and women bounced snappy dialogue off each other as if they were both real people.  Most romances made today are lop-sided, usually skewering one gender role in the hopes of appealing to the other.  Friends With Benefits is straightforward in its intentions much like its two leads are with each other.  It is seeking to debunk and even satirize the myth of true love presented in the movies, and it is very successful at that until it reluctantly caves in to those same cliches.

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are the perfect match for the verbal ping pong in the script and off-kilter enough to make the movie’s intentions palpable.  They are naturally funny and have exceptional chemistry, so they and the rest of the excellent cast shine even brighter in a funny screenplay.  It also helps that the director and co-writer Will Gluck knows that creating a sense of atmosphere in New York City is more important than any shot of the Empire State Building.

Friends With Benefits was inevitably going to draw comparisons to this year’s No Strings Attached because it is essentially the same premise and it stars Natalie Portman’s costar from Black Swan.  It’s likely they were shot around the same time, so the one that got released first would inevitably make the other look like a copycat.  It helps that the Kunis/Timberlake pairing is much more engaging that Kutcher/Portman.

The first half of this movie is very nearly perfect; a balance of warm, engaging acting and whip-smart dialogue.  These characters are pleasantly chatty, and Gluck holds off the inevitable hook-up for enough time to let us get to know the characters.  Dylan is an online art director, Jamie a corporate headhunter.  She’s tasked with placing him in a position at GQ, which brings them together at the beginning.  They also share another connection: they’ve both just been dumped; Dylan by Emma Stone, Jamie by Andy Samberg.

Dylan and Jamie’s Meet Cute is not really cute at all.  They’re professional, but still verbally engaging.  A friendship develops, and then it evolves into something more: sex.  Friends With Benefits may harken back to an older day of banter, but it’s very modern in its sexuality (there’s a lot of screwing).  The actors are not shy, and the screenplay piles on several dirty jokes during the sex scenes.  It’s a lot like the opening scene of Bridesmaids between Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig.

Roles for women are indeed evolving in comedies, at least this summer.  Kunis is not once condescended to or condescending.  She is not a fun-sucker and she is not unfulfilled.  Both of these characters are portrayed as simply going through a rough patch.

Unfortunately, the movie hits a couple of speed bumps of its own.  The last third is really the only big problem, where Gluck and his co-writers pile on too much sentimentality.  There is a terrific scene between Dylan and his Alzheimer’s-ridden father (Richard Jenkins) in an airport restaurant.  His dad takes off his pants and sits at the table, and Dylan joins him.  The two share a touching conversation, and I won’t spoil the details.  It’s the only scene in the last part of the movie that lives up to the rest of it.

The mere fact that Friends With Benefits only disappointed at the end means it’s a vast improvement over other romantic comedies.  Change is coming to familiar stories like this not in the way they are told, but in the treatment of their characters.  Turns out, it’s better when they’re treated like grown-ups.

Grade: B-

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