Thursday, July 21, 2011
Review: "Friends with Benefits"
Boy, I could really feel "Friends with Benefits" trying.
This hip romantic/comedy wants you to know that it's not just an average romantic comedy. It is aware that it's a romantic comedy, and acknowledges and mocks the convention of that genre -- even as it falls back on them time and again.
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis -- two performers whose acting skills have not heretofore impressed me -- play a pair of best buds who decide to incorporate sex into the relationship while keeping the friendship intact.
Of course, this never works in real life, or in the movies. And the characters and script of "Friends" is smart enough to admit this before setting off into an adventure that the audience and the film both know will fail.
The movie seems to think that by announcing itself in this way, it can than proceed to do every predictable thing we know is going to happen, but because they called it beforehand it's cool.
This movie reminded me of a shy, awkward guy who approaches a girl at a bar and opens with, "You may think this is really stupid, but..." And then, having told her that what he's going to say is pitiful, he is surprised when she's inclined to think so, too.
Timberlake is Dylan, who works at a rambunctious start-up website in the crunchy Pacific Northwest. He's recruited to interview for a position as art director at GQ magazine in New York City, with Kunis playing Jamie, the headhunter pitching the job to him. Or rather, she's pitching him the job, because Dylan is very ambivalent about moving to the big city and going mainstream.
After a magical evening on the town, right down to a massive flash mob dancing in Times Square that Jamie arranged just for Dylan, he agrees. (I can only imagine if he'd said, "Yeah, I'm bushed, gonna just go back to my hotel room." That's a lot of phone calls to make.) Not only that, they find such a connection that they start hanging out as friends.
After a pair of crashes in their respective love lives, they decide to add sex to the bill of fare. No commitments, no mushy scenes of regret, just an exchange of physical needs -- not unlike a game of tennis, they reason.
There's a certain friskiness to their couplings, including some glimpses of Timberlake and Kunis' naked posteriors (or at least Kunis' body double, I suspect).
I don't need to go into detail about what happens next. Despite the movie's pretensions and look-ma-no-hands self-referencing, it still ends up right where you knew it was going to go.
In fact, the mocking of romcom convention often ends up backfiring. There's a number of bits when Dylan breaks into snippets of song -- ostensibly to comment on the intrusive use of music in romantic movies, but really I suspect to give Timberlake a chance to show off his golden pipes.
But then later, "Friends" employs the same syrupy, incongruous musical cues that it was just lampooning.
Director Will Gluck, who helmed last year's clever "Easy A," co-wrote the screenplay with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman. They do manage a few funny moments, and a couple of characters who were more interesting than the stars.
Woody Harrelson plays Tommy, a co-worker of Dylan's who is extremely enthusiastic about expressing his gayness. He's positively puffed up with happiness and wants the world to know it's because he loves men. I'd like to think that such an exuberant soul could exist and work at a straight men's magazine, though I tend to doubt it.
The great character actor Richard Jenkins plays Dylan's father, who's suffering from dementia. The writers give him one great scene in an airport that was so passionate and angry and true, I felt sorry that the movie around it was unworthy.
1.5 stars out of four