Friends With Benefits
We all know romantic comedies aren’t getting anymore original. I mean, that old chestnut of best friends who have sex with the intention of no emotional attachment only to fall for each other was explored not even 6 months ago with No Strings Attached, but originality is not what the genre is about, nor where it succeeds. The success of a good romcom seems to stem not from the script but from the chemistry of its leads. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson are just some of the cinematic pairings that have elevated typical scripts to something far more memorable thanks to their natural connection, and now we can add Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake to the list as Friends With Benefits.
Our introduction to the future bed-buddies is an amusing and cleverly edited sequence where they are both dumped by their respective partners (Andy Samberg and Emma Stone), allowing head-hunter Jamie (Kunis) plenty of time to chase after internet blog wonder-kid Dylan (Timberlake) in the hopes of luring him from LA to New York so he can work for ‘GQ’. Dylan is apprehensive at first, but gets such a detailed run through of the Big Apple from Jamie that it becomes impossible to say no. It’s obvious from the word go that there’s a connection between the two and after a night of a few too many drinks and the natural conversation progression from relationships to sex they agree (actually they swear on the iPad Bible app) to enter into a purely physical relationship.
After what could possibly be the funniest sex scene to grace the screen, Dylan and Jamie are at it like a pair of horny teenagers for the first half of the film. Many of these scenes are played for laughs, but there’s a refreshing sense of honesty to them as it explores the sort of kinks and quirks we all have but are rarely addressed, as when Jamie criticizes Dylan’s oral technique, or we witness his unique reaction to climaxing, so there’s a familiarity in the humor that allows our reactions more relevance. The tone of the film shifts rather drastically when Dylan invites Jamie to LA for the 4th of July weekend to meet his family, namely his sister Annie (Jenna Elfman) and father (the always wonderful Richard Jenkins), who also happens to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. The strain the disease has caused Dylan offers surprising emotional weight to the film and results in some heartbreaking scenes, and allows Jenkins and particularly Timberlake to prove themselves as capable dramatic performers.
Watching a romantic comedy and having it shift into more serious territory is certainly not a new concept, and it would appear that ‘Friends With Benefits’ is playing into every cliche imaginable with the gay best friend (played hilariously by Woody Harrelson) and Jamie’s mother Lorna (a scene-stealing Patricia Clarkson), one of those randy free-spirited women we all wish we could have as a mother but are ultimately thankful we don’t, but the genius is that this film knows it’s giving into the genre conventions and addresses it throughout; its a welcome irony when it does exactly what we expect it to do. It also helps that it freely makes a mockery of the stereotypical structure the romcom has succumbed to in the last few years with an amusing movie-within-a-movie that serves up amusing cameos from Jason Segel and Rashida Jones.
As said though, it’s the leads that make or break a film like this, and as good as the script is, it really is a winner due to the lead performances. After The Social Network and Bad Teacher, it’s clear that Timberlake has what it takes to be a bonafide superstar on the big screen. There’s a charisma that flows so freely from his persona that it seems strange now to consider him a singer-turned-actor. And as for Kunis, she may be the most adorable creature to grace the screen. Her turn in ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ highlighted her immense likability and believability as a romantic female lead, and here she has secured herself as the go-to-girl for this genre; Katherine Heigl should step aside, or ‘shut up’ for being a ‘****ing liar’ as she is described in this film. A romantic comedy that is both romantic and funny? Surely ‘Friends With Benefits’ deserves at least a look for conquering that seemingly impossible feat.
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