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Friends with Benefits (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"When Justin Met Mila. . ."
4 stars

After hearing the premise and seeing the commercials for "Friends with Benefits," most moviegoers may find themselves suffering from a stronger-than-usual sense of deja vu. Yes, the basic premise of a romantic comedy centering on two people sick of the dating scene who attempt to include emotion-free sex into their already-existing friendship without letting it ruin things between them was already explored earlier this year in "No Strings Attached." And like "No Strings Attached," it features a cast that includes a refugee from "That 70's Show," one of the stars of "Black Swan" and a hunky teen idol attempting to graduate on into more adult roles. Finally, like "No Strings Attached," it winds up sagging after a while when it begins to submit in the second half to the very same rom-com cliches that it mercilessly mocks in the first half. And yet, in much the same way that "Armageddon" proved to be the better asteroid-attacking-Earth movie despite appearing several months after "Deep Impact," "Friends with Benefits" is by far the better of the two films--partly because it, unlike "No Strings Attached," is completely Greta Gerwig-free and partly because, unlike "No Strings Attached," it has bigger laughs, better chemistry between the two leads and it stays afloat longer before succumbing to the seas of conventionality.

Justin Timberlake stars as Dylan, a hotshot website designer who, as the story opens, is being flown to New York by corporate headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis) to interview for a top-level position at GQ magazine (though I am sure that Kunis' current position as the lightly-clad cover girl of its latest real-life edition is only a coincidence). After a whirlwind tour of the city that includes everything from unexpected celebrity appearances to flash mobs, Dylan takes the job and he and Jamie quickly become fast friends. Having both recently suffered grim break-up with their respective former partners (though considering that said break-ups allowed them to miss a John Mayer concert and a screening of "Pretty Woman," they should probably consider themselves lucky), neither one is especially keen to get back into the dating scene but when certain hormonal urges kick in, they decide to try to include purely physical and completely emotion-free sex into their relationship without letting it ruin the friendship. At first, everything is swell and sweaty but as much as they try to deny it, they appear to all observers--including her flighty mom (Patricia Clarkson) and his straitlaced sister (Jenna Elfman) and Alzheimer's-ridden father (Richard Jenkins) that they are perfect for each other. Alas, whenever one of them tries to act upon those feelings, it always comes at the wrong time and leads to the possibility of destroying their relationship forever.

As even this brief plot description reveals, "Friends with Benefits" is not exactly a film overflowing with startling creativity--even leaving "Friends with Benefits" out of the equation, attentive viewers will note similarities between it and the likes of "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," "When Harry Met Sally" and several episodes of "Seinfeld, just to name some of the ones that are overtly name-checked in the screenplay by Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck (the latter also served as director). That said, what the screenplay lacks in originality, it makes up for in energy and wit because there are a lot of big laughs to be had here that run the gamut from the raunchy to the ridiculous without ever going too far overboard in either direction. Like the films of the Farrelly Brothers, it mixes the smutty with the sweet and like the films of Judd Apatow, it merges the comedy with moments of dramatic conflict and recognizable human behavior and quite frankly, Gluck handles those twin juggling acts better than any of the recent offerings from the Farrelly or Apatow assembly lines. While it is uneven in spots, Gluck keeps things humming along and bristling with a nice comic energy throughout. If there is one flaw to the comedic aspect of the film, it is that it is so contemporary in regards to its humor that future viewers are unlikely to get many of the jokes because they presumably will have no frame of reference regarding such doubtlessly forgotten and arcane concepts as flash mobs, 3rd Eye Blind or "GQ" magazine.

What will still work for those potential future viewers as well as those watching today is the obvious romantic and comedic chemistry between the two leads. As viewers of films such as "Southland Tales" and "The Social Network" can attest, Justin Timberlake has fully escaped his boy-band roots to become one of the more interesting screen presences around but with this film, he finally gets to show off the considerable comedic chops that have put him on the same shelf as the likes of Christopher Walken, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as one of the most consistently reliable hosts in the history of "Saturday Night Live." As for Mila Kunis, having already demonstrated heretofore unexpected dramatic flair with her criminally underrated performance in "Black Swan," she proves to be more than Timberlake's equal here with a funny, sexy and spirited turn should finally push her over the edge from being merely the second-hottest Ukrainian refugee named Mila gracing the big screen these days to a full-fledged star in her own right. Together, two two play beautifully off of each other and even when the proceedings threaten to get either too familiar or too self-consciously ironic for their own good, they keep things firmly on track with such success that I wouldn't mind seeing them in a string of romantic comedies down the road. To be fair, they also get a lot help from a nice supporting cast that, beyond the aforementioned likes of Jenkins and Clarkson (the latter getting laughs despite playing virtually the same character she played Gluck in his previous effort, the quite funny "Easy A," includes Woody Harrelson, who steals scenes left and right as the flamboyantly gay "GQ" sports editor, and Emma Stone and Andy Samberg as the former lovers who spur our heroes on their quest for emotion-free booty calls. (The kids still call them that, right?)

"Friends with Benefits" is admittedly uneven in certain regards--some of the ironic commentary on romantic comedy conventions in the early scenes are a bit too on-the-nose, some of the later scenes wind up embracing the very same tired cliches mocked in the early innings and the stuff involving Dylan's ailing father seems a little too calculated to bring to add dramatic heft to the proceedings for its own good (even though it does allow Richard Jenkins the chance to shine in another keenly felt supporting performance). That said, the romantic comedy genre has been in such a lull in recent years that even one that demonstrates even a smidgen of genuine wit is likely to stand out in sharp relief to the likes of anything that Katherine Heigl has appeared in over the last few years. "Friends with Benefits" offers more than just a smidgen of that and in a summer otherwise dominated by giant robots, talking cars and superheroes, the sight of two good-looking and frequently half-naked charmers spouting off frequently funny and definitely ribald lines while sparking off of each other is such a welcome sight that weary moviegoers will fully embrace all of the benefits that it has to offer.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20532&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/21/11 20:53:16
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User Comments

3/29/20 Bronwyn Blanchard Good performances save it from drowning in cliches. NYC sure can be harsh! 4 stars
3/03/12 Raven Just skin, no story. Why do keep making movies like this? 2 stars
12/24/11 debbie hodgdon not memorable enough, only liked the humor 2 stars
11/26/11 Shaun A Fun movie though not too deep 3 stars
9/27/11 Norman If Mila Kunis would hump me, I'd pine my life away before settling for being "just friends" 3 stars
8/26/11 Gretchen Seitz Ixnay on implied "Harry Met Sally" comparison. Much better than that morbid groaner! 4 stars
8/07/11 danielle heredia Amazing. love Emma stones parts!! she is amazing! 4 stars
8/04/11 Robert Trebor Sexy, but too long (the film) 3 stars
7/23/11 Jennifer Barr not that great 3 stars
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  22-Jul-2011 (R)
  DVD: 02-Dec-2011


  DVD: 02-Dec-2011

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