It was only a few months ago that Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman bumped uglies in No Strings Attached to a largely muted response (OTB’s Jamie Steiner almost choked on his bile). Friends With Benefits has an eerily similar premise made doubly strange by the presence of Mila Kunis, Portman’s Black Swan co-star. But while No Strings Attached was a largely humourless and bloodless affair, Friends With Benefits crackles with life.
Justin Timberlake stars as Dylan, an art director from Los Angeles who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend (Emma Stone). When he gets head-hunted by Jamie (Mila Kunis) who has also just been dumped by her boyfriend (the always welcome Andy Samberg), he moves to New York and the two quickly become friends.
During a late night conversation, the topic turns to sex and relationships and Jamie and Dylan reveal that they both have commitment issues. They resolve to become “friends with benefits” – friends that have sex without all that nasty emotional stuff getting in the way. Naturally things don’t pan out exactly as they’d planned.
Justin Timberlake has been steadily building a reputation as a comic actor (his SNL skits with Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island are particularly good, his appearance in Bad Teacher less so). Here, teamed with Mila Kunis, herself an experienced comedy actress (Family Guy and That 70s Show), their chemistry is sparky and fresh.
Not only do they make an attractive couple (Kunis in particular looks absolutely stunning, like a pocket-sized version of Angelina Jolie) but their friendship also feels genuine – a rare quality that can make or break a rom com. Director Will Gluck (whose 2010 effort Easy A was a breath of fresh air) keeps the pace fast and the jokes constant. The leads get the lion’s share of the gags but there are some memorable and superb turns from Patricia Clarkson (everyone’s favourite cool mum) who makes a welcome appearance as (you guessed it) Jamie’s cool mum and Woody Harrelson as Dylan’s gay colleague.
It demonstrates an admirable knowledge of its genre. There’s a very promising start where Jamie denounces Katherine Heigl for peddling slushy rom-com clichés (“Shut Up Katherine Heigl you big stupid liar!”) – an introduction which dangles the delicious possibility of a deconstruction of the genre.
Sadly, while it goes through great lengths to present itself as a sort of anti-romcom, it jumps headlong into the same clichéd pitfalls that it lampshades. That’s the equivalent of someone pointing out a hidden landmine and then gleefully leaping on it with all the enthusiasm of a demented Border Collie. It might do it with a nod and wink but it’s still incredibly frustrating.
So we’re left with an unnecessarily subplot in which we visit Dylan’s family and his father (Richard Jenkins) struggles with Alzheimer’s, something which doesn’t prevent him dispensing some mushy 11th hour advice about love and relationships.
There’s also a rather distracting amount of product placement. Dylan very conspicuously works for GQ and while there’s nothing wrong with areal brand being mentioned (it’s even desirable in some cases), it seems to get mentioned in every sentence and every establishing shot. A GQ drinking game would leave participants under the table in under 20 minutes.
For the most part Friends With Benefits is a fun, fast-paced and genre-savvy rom com with attractive stars, a good gag rate and some excellent supporting turns. It’s just a shame that it throws that all away by descending rehashing the same tropes that you’d hope it’d have the good sense to avoid.