Mark Reviews Movies

Friends with Benefits


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Will Gluck

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman, Bryan Greenberg, Richard Jenkins

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content and language)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 7/22/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 21, 2011

It's unavoidable that Friends with Benefits will eventually begin to use the same sort of formulaic genre clichés it so squarely knocks down a few pegs. After all, for all the film's broad yet astute observations of how romantic comedies operate and the real world romantic expectations that arise as a result, it is, ultimately, still a romantic comedy. There are, for better or worse, rules by which even the most skeptical participants must play.

Until that happens, though, the film is a full-blooded sex comedy, with its central characters talking openly about sexual turn-ons, quirks, and positions, both in and out of the sack. They promise each other at the start of their physical relationship that no emotional boundaries will be crossed, and screenwriters Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, and director Will Gluck allow them to follow through on it. There's no petty bickering about titles for their relationship. They don't start to get disappointed when other things come up. When it's over because it's time to move on to other potential romantic attachments, there's no overt jealousy by the party who doesn't have an immediate prospect in mind.

The film plays antithetically to genre expectations, and the script is fully aware of the fact. On occasion, there are glimpses of a faux cinematic romance starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, and their characters go through the motions. There's a climactic run for him to catch her in Grand Central Station, a reference to her busybody but loyal female friend, a grand and tender gesture, and a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The characters in the actual movie watch with their characteristic reactions. He, Dylan (Justin Timberlake), moans and groans at the lazy substitution of Los Angeles for the Big Apple; she, Jamie (Mila Kunis), recites the dialogue along with the characters.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the conventions of this genre to learn that both of these people have issues. Dylan has difficulty with intimacy (Hence, the socks stay on), and Jamie, never knowing her father, holds close to her heart the idea that there's a Prince Charming somewhere out there (Of course, she hides her idealism and vulnerability under a veil of toughness). We know these personal problems will come to the surface and cause difficulties between the two, but it's refreshing how dismissive the film and they are of those troubles until it is absolutely necessary to start the gears of conflict in motion. 

They meet (after an amusing bait-and-switch gag of a prologue that deftly sums up their attitudes about relationships) when Jamie, a professional headhunter, offers Dylan, an artistic editor for a website headquartered in Los Angeles, the chance to interview for a job at a magazine in New York City. They become fast friends. Their viewing of the fake romantic comedy leads to a discussion about sex—how it complicates things and what not—which in turn leads to a proposition: To start a sexual relationship without the entanglements that come with dating.

The resulting sex scenes are played purely and effectively for comedy, as they bark orders to each other on technique and offer up constructive criticism where needs be. Awkward situations arise and are played for laughs, such as the dilemma of needing to use the bathroom when standing at attention (The screenplay, thankfully, is below such euphemisms) or the question of tongue usage ("Are you trying to dig your way to China?"), and their affair is playful and frankly discussed.

The film gets away with a lot by adopting this tone, especially in its supporting characters. What could be stereotypical and problematic roles, thanks to wise casting, fit in just fine, like Jamie's free-spirited mother, who could comes across antagonistically (Her poor memory of partners or willing obstruction is the reason Jamie doesn't know who her father is) but is played by Patricia Clarkson with innocent hedonism, or Dylan's sports editor, who could be the hateful caricature of a predatory gay man but is played by Woody Harrelson with goofy relish. More difficult is Dylan's father, who suffers from Alzheimer's and is used only as a transparent tool to give Dylan just the right advice at just the right time. He is played by Richard Jenkins, and there's just enough emotional honesty in the performance to barely overcome the discomfort inherent to the script's use of the character.

It's a shame, really, that, in the end, Friends with Benefits settles on the road most commonly traveled, especially when it offers its characters a few outs (Jamie begins dating a different guy, a job opportunity comes up, and there's a moment when Dylan's father mistakes Jamie for a woman that was the love of his life (developing that angle would have sealed the terms of their relationship)). At least it has plenty of fun before getting there.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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