Despite spending a lot of their time dissing the romantic comedy genre and its many falsifications, Friends With Benefits fits neatly into that same box, never striving for the top, but also showing more charm, wit and depth than its overly familiar premise suggests.
Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake lift this by-the-numbers romantic comedy up to something charming and sweet...
Lots has been said about its similarities to the dismal No Strings Attached, with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher occupying the roles of the commitment-phobes, but Kunis and Timberlake exude chemistry and familiarity, meaning you’d want to spend time with them even if they weren’t doing the nasty.
The plot is simple. Timberlake’s Dylan is tempted to a New York job at GQ by corporate headhunter, Jamie (Kunis). They soon become friends and quickly get to the benefits, after watching a contrived Jason Segel rom-com and vowing to leave all meaning out of sex. Things obviously get more complicated than that, but Friends With Benefits manages to avoid the pitfalls many a romantic comedy has fallen down.
And the film lives and dies on its two leads. There are plenty of rumours, encouraged by Timberlake and Kunis, that the two are getting some benefits of their own, and it doesn’t hurt the movie at all. Let’s face it, films like this rely on the celebrity calibre of its leads, and if they’re courting gossip rags and public opinion while making the film, it’ll just draw more people in. The fact is, you’ll buy what you’re seeing on screen, and that’s down to the relationship between the stars. In this case, the publicity trail is almost part of the narrative.
When they’re not bumping nasties, the film
has a serious side too. Similar to Love and Other Drugs, it combines the levity of romantic clichés and comedic supporting actors (Woody Harrelson is a particular highlight) with something a little bit meatier, in this case Dylan’s father’s Alzheimer’s. Richard Jenkins does a fabulous job of selling the sadness and frustration of the story thread, and Timberlake tries his hardest alongside. If he doesn’t quite handle the more dramatic side of the film, his likeability means you’ll be rooting for him anyway.
Mila Kunis, fresh off her turn in Black Swan, is a force of nature. A hundred per cent smarter, more realistic and instantly relatable than a Jennifer Aniston or a Katherine Heigl, she holds the movie together with her frank attitudes and barely hidden vulnerabilities. It’s tempting to say she’s better than the material given here, but it’s precisely her talent and star quality that lift the film from mediocre up to guilty pleasure. She looks a hell of a lot better in her underwear than most girls, and she’s playing a ‘type’ of girl seen many times before, but it’s the first time you’ll recognise it as human.
If Friends With Benefits feels too familiar, that’s because sexual liberation is the new black for the modern romantic comedy. A slowly dying genre, the contemporary rom-com has understandably latched onto this new concept, fraught with explicit conversation and raunchy encounters, as its potential saviour. It would be a shame if the movie were greeted with an over-saturated audience, as Friends With Benefits is a sweet, clever and attractive ‘chick flick’ that may just appeal to the guys as well.