REVIEW: Friends with Benefits Pays Almost Zero Dividends
The idea of romantic comedies is that you want to see the two leads get past all their false starts and misunderstandings and get together. But what happens if you just don't care? Scratch that: What happens if the leads in question are Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis and you still don't care?
That's the question that haunted me as I suffered through Friends with Benefits, which was directed by Will Gluck. Gluck made one of the most pleasing comedies of last year, Easy A, in which Emma Stone plays a good-girl high schooler who gets mistaken for a bad girl and decides to play up her unearned bad reputation. Justin Timberlake has proved himself to be a nimble, loose-jointed comic performer in pictures like the very recent Bad Teacher, not to mention his Saturday Night Live appearances. (The genius of the infamous "Dick in a Box" skit he concocted with Andy Samberg is the way it both celebrates and deflates machismo -- and reminds us that presentation is everything.) And Mila Kunis, with her Cleopatra eyes and bad-gal pout, gave the best, least-mannered performance in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan; she was a ballerina with balls.
But every actor in Friends with Benefits, including the nearly indestructible Patricia Clarkson and Richard Jenkins, stalls out in the process of pedaling desperately to make this substandard material work. (The script was written by Gluck, Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, from a story by Harley Peyton, Merryman and Newman.) Kunis plays Jamie, a New York headhunter who drags Los Angeles art director Dylan (Timberlake) to New York, tapping him for a big job at GQ. Both Dylan and Jamie have been burned recently by love, and they strike up a prickly friendship. At first each barely seems to recognize the smouldering-goofy hotness of the other. But they hang out so much, and like each other so much, that they tentatively decide to add sex to their strictly platonic regime. They don't so much tumble into bed as order each other into it, following up with sets of barked instructions and guidelines along the lines of "What are you trying to do, dig your way to China?"
Secretly, of course, Jamie wants her life to be like the romantic comedies she watches at home, cuddled up on the couch. (The faux movie-within-a-movie, starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, is funnier than anything the clunker around it.) And while Dylan claims to be playing by the rules this adamant noncouple have laid down, he finds himself secretly falling for this unusual no-nonsense, drowsy-eyed vixen.
It could work -- it should work. But Gluck appears to be trying to mimic the rat-a-tat rhythms of traditional screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby, and all he brings out in his actors is an unappealing shrillness. The characters' lines don't hit with a ping, like a bullet glancing off a rock; they clatter against each other in an unholy racket. Kunis' voice -- so sultry in Black Swan -- is pitched so high here that it could peel the paint off her fingernails, and Timberlake's pitch seems to have ratcheted itself up to meet hers. When they bicker, in that way that cute romantic-comedy couples so often do, it's like two hawks fighting in midair over a purloined mouse.
I breathed a sigh of relief when Clarkson showed up, only to learn that not even she could elevate her character -- Jamie's unreliable, hippie-dippie mom -- into anything beyond a dashed-off stereotype. And Jenkins may have it worse, as Dylan's dad. He suffers from Alzheimer's, and he's so addled he sometimes decides not to wear any pants in public. At other times, he's lucid enough to give sage advice along the lines of "If you love a woman, fight for her." He's better with no pants.
Friends with Benefits shares a theme with Ivan Reitman's fairly recent No Strings Attached, in which Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman try to make a similar sex-with-no-hangups arrangement work. That movie was enjoyable for its congenial, relaxed vibe, and for the way Reitman seemed to be in tune with the reality that most young people -- and even most modern people -- have sex before they've actually fallen in love. Friends with Benefits also recognizes that reality, but in a more forced, mechanical way. And its actors seem to be having a lousy time, both in the sack and out of it. In real life, sex without strings is rarely breezy, but in Friends with Benefits it looks like torture. Love hurts -- but it should never feel like this.