REVIEW: Friends with Benefits

22 07 2011

It’s time for a movie to come along that changes the romantic comedy genre for better and for always (or at least reverses the way it’s heading at the present moment). A movie willing to avoid the sappiness and the cliched, predictable genre tropes. A movie willing to be a little bit sneaky and subversive in its delivery of what the audience wants from the genre. A movie that gets to the heart of what the genre is supposed to be – truthful, believable romance with some observations on the tricky thing that is love with some humor sprinkled on top.

Friends with Benefits” is not that movie, although it desperately wants to be. It gets some points for trying, though. It takes some good pot shots at the genre through the very clever usage of a fake romantic comedy starring Rashida Jones and Jason Segel inside the movie, and levels some very accurate criticism of them that will no doubt have audiences nodding along with Timberlake and Kunis’ sex pals.

But like so many of the recent onslaught of meta movies, it winds up devolving into the very thing it scorns. It wants all the benefits of self-awareness but none of the responsibilities, which here would include being creative and providing an alternative to the laughable aspects of the genre that it constantly lampoons. To use a sports metaphor, it has the swing but not the followthrough. It boldly goes where few romantic comedies will go and then backs away when honesty and ingenuity is asked of it.

However, it’s nice (for once) to see the movies giving us some indication they realize how RIDICULOUS the romantic comedy has become. Even though “Friends with Benefits” eventually subscribes to the formulaic rules of the genre straight from the textbook, I’ll take a movie with squandered potential over one with no potential any day. Not that it makes it any less disappointing, but the movie sort of gives us a wink and a nudge when it crosses over to the dark side. It’s almost as if director Will Gluck (last year’s excellent “Easy A“) is so apologetic for selling out that he all but superimposes the text “I’M SORRY” over the closing scene.

But if you can look past the shamelessness in being just another romantic comedy, you might find that “Friends with Benefits” is a pretty decent movie. It’s wickedly funny, undoubtedly helped by its R-rated liberty to be raunchy, disgusting, and vulgar to the extremes. Yet the humor isn’t just gross sex gags for a quick chuckle; Gluck takes cleverly rewarding wit (which was the best facet of “Easy A”), strips it down, and puts it between the sheets with Justin and Mila. Belly laughs abound when these two friends enjoy their benefits, but they become more scarce when it becomes about the L-word (love, that is).

Timberlake and Kunis really work well together as a pair, and not just because their fantastically toned physiques will excite both genders on date night. They have a genuine chemistry, giving their zinging dialogue a pop that makes it seem almost unscripted. Their relationship’s natural feel certainly makes the movie more enjoyable when it takes a more predictable turn, and they always overshadow whoever is sharing the screen with them. Be it Justin Timberlake’s crude, in-your-face homosexual co-worker played by Woody Harrelson, Mila Kunis’ sexually voracious mother played by Patricia Clarkson, or any number of great celebrities in cameo appearances, the friends are always catching our eye.

The writers of “Friends with Benefits” have called their movie an anti-romantic comedy that “embod[ies] a generation” of commitment-free sex. While the movie is entertaining, funny, and definitely a worthwhile watch, I’m not sure that the writers accurately assessed their own work. It most definitely IS a romantic comedy; it just takes a slightly different road to end up where the average genre entry does. And while it may serve as a testament to changing social norms and attitudes towards sex and relationships, I hope Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher get to slap the writers if “Friends with Benefits” ends up being the movie that embodies this generation to future audiences. B /

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One response

31 07 2011
CMrok93

Kunis and Timberlake really do have chemistry, as well as comic timing. When his tender glances meet her sly conspiratorial smile, it’s genuinely fun to watch. Good Review Marshall!

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