A comedy centered on close pals Jamie (Kunis) and Dylan (Timberlake) and their decision to add no-strings sex to their friendship.
The title should tell you everything about the concept: two friendly members of the opposite sex try to enjoy a frivolously sexual relationship without the burden of romantic involvement.
Against the animated backdrop of New York City, the American capital of white-collar casual sex, the appeal of “Friends With Benefits” resides in the likeability factor of its two star lovers.
Looking snazzy in Oxford lace-ups and a Tiffany slide belt, Justin Timberlake positively shines in his first leading-man role, a magazine editor named Dylan. He has just been recruited from his comfort zone in L.A. by a vivacious and boisterous New Yorker named Jamie (Mila Kunis), who personifies the nutty and unpredictable nature of the Big Apple.
Kunis’ penchant for comedy is wonderfully employed here as Jamie is presented as neurotic and hopelessly anti-romantic. To use her own word, she is emotionally “damaged” from previous relationships.
But once we meet her mother, Lorna (Patricia Clarkson, who seems to be making a career of portraying whimsical moms in need of morality lessons), we can see where Jamie’s emotional detachments began. Director Will Gluck featured Clarkson as Emma Stone’s permissive and anti-disciplinary mother Rosemary in last year’s “Easy A”. And she played Marietta, a similar carefree mom caught in the winds of sexual rediscovery, in Woody Allen’s 2009 “Whatever Works”.
Though Clarkson may be convincing in these roles, these characters are not necessarily enjoyable to watch. In fact, it makes you wonder why this woman wanted to be a mother in the first place since she appears to be incapable of maternal guidance. With a lackluster model like her alcoholic mother, it is remarkable that Jamie is a thriving member of society and not a deluded sociopath herself.
While Lorna helps us understand Jamie’s psychological origins, we don’t understand why she is so unsuccessful in her relationships. Andy Samburg dumps her in the beginning of the movie without a hint of motivation. She gets her heart broken again during the movie’s second act by another chump, prompting the question: Why would you break up with such a beautiful girl who is so full of spirited and comedic energy? She even has a job!
Perhaps the biggest complaint anyone can make about this light-hearted rom-com is the fact that it follows the same premise as Ivan Reitman’s “No Strings Attached”, which was released earlier this year. In fact, the tagline for that comedy, which featured Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, was “Friendship Has Its Benefits”.
But name me a romantic comedy that is not a retread of a similar synopsis. Unlike action stories or screwball comedies, the story structure of a romantic comedy is limited to its core essentials: flirtatious beginnings, the inevitable break-up, and a satisfying reconciliation.
Does anyone really care that Kutcher and Portman made the same moves six months ago? Did anyone even see that movie?
As anyone who has ever been entertained by a romantic comedy can tell you, the charm does not survive in the originality of the premise, but in the chemistry between its two leading actors.
Throughout the picture, it seems more important that we believe Dylan and Jamie as friends, rather than lovers. When they temporarily call an end to their casual fornications, we don’t feel any heavy repercussions to the end of their harmless affair. But when the core foundation of their friendship is put in jeopardy, there is sudden drama interjected into the story.
Tension approaches the storyline even more unexpectedly when Richard Jenkins makes an appearance as Dylan’s father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Anyone who knows anyone afflicted with this illness understands the turmoil and tragedy of its effects. Both Jenkins and Timberlake handle the subplot with gentle care and first-rate acting.
And it is JT’s effortless grace as a leading man that carries much of this picture. Unlike so many contemporary male A-list stars, Timberlake manages to portray the accessible bachelor without being painfully romantic. He is confident without being arrogant and honestly funny without being cynical.
It is also a joy to watch Kunis in all of her irreverent glory as a young woman in search of Mr. Right Now. Whereas Portman’s appetite for meaningless sex in “No Strings Attached” seemed uncharacteristic for the actress, it comes natural and enticingly believable for Kunis.
They are like a 21st-century version of Jerry and Elaine, with all of the playful mockery and none of the self-centered cynicism.