Film Review: Friends with Benefits

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis make an attractive couple, but that’s the best that can be said for this rom-com that’s just as superficial as the clichés it ridicules.

Remember the innocent days of When Harry Met Sally, when Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan vowed to maintain a friendship without letting it get consumed by the knotty complications of romance? Well, here are we 22 years later, and the concept of “friends with benefits”—pals enjoying the occasional sexual romp with, uh, “no strings attached”—has entered the common parlance. That notion gave rise this winter to the Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher comedy No Strings Attached, and now Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis test the theory in the interchangeably titled Friends with Benefits.

Sexual mores have changed, and so have comedy scripts about sex and romance. When Harry Met Sally’s naughtiest moment was its instantly iconic scene in which Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in a crowded deli; Friends with Benefits not only has its actors fake actual orgasms, it includes such examples of wit as “suck a bag of d—ks” and “shit the bed’ within the first ten minutes. Director Will Gluck (Easy A) says he wanted to do an update of old Hepburn and Tracy movies, but I don’t remember Kate and Spence ever discussing private parts other than Adam’s rib.

Yes, music-turned-movie star Timberlake and Kunis are very attractive people and they do have chemistry onscreen. But do you for a moment believe they are the characters devised by Gluck and co-writers Keith Merryman and David A. Newman? Not a chance. Okay, with his fashion sense and pop-culture cred, we can sort of accept Timberlake as an L.A.-based art director hot enough to be wooed by GQ magazine, but the still-girlish Kunis is a real stretch as a high-powered corporate head-hunter. It’s the seasoned supporting players who add any trace of depth to the lead characters’ backstories as self-proclaimed “emotionally damaged” people, not anything to be found in the two stars’ glib and glossy performances.

Timberlake’s Dylan and Kunis’ Jamie become fast friends when she aggressively courts him for that GQ job with an elaborate personal tour of New York. As their rapport gets stronger, they realize they’ve both been stung by disastrous love affairs and make a pact to sleep together but avoid anything resembling emotional commitment. The experiment succeeds for a while, but intimacy ultimately leaves them vulnerable to the usual misunderstandings, hasty words and crossed signals.

In one of the movie’s better jokes, Dylan and Jamie periodically watch a rom-com within the rom-com starring an unbilled Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, ridiculing such clichés as carriage rides and intrusive music cues. But if you’re going to make fun of rom-com tropes, you had better make certain you’re not wallowing in them yourself: The flash mobs that play a strenuous role in two scenes are already a dated cliché, the peppy pop-music soundtrack is as overeager as any orchestral score, and the plot mechanics that separate the couple are clunkily predictable. And should a movie that scoffs at bogus sincerity really use Alzheimer’s disease as a narrative crutch?

Of the supporting cast, Patricia Clarkson steals her scenes as Jamie’s outspoken, sexually liberated mother, and Richard Jenkins finds real poignancy in the utility role of Dylan’s ailing dad. But Woody Harrelson is an annoying misfire as the GQ sports editor; the feeble gag is that he’s very openly gay but acts like a macho jock.

Friends with Benefits makes ample use of its New York and L.A. locations and is handsomely photographed by Michael Grady. Audiences will also appreciate the amount of skin on display from the two comely leads, although the total amount of actual nudity (mainly from Timberlake) probably amounts to all of 20 seconds. For a film that wants to be an edgy retort to timid romantic comedies, concealing sheets play a crucial role.