I like a movie that tells you its entire premise in the title. At least you have no one but yourself to blame if your $9.50 went for naught.
So it was that faced with the alternative of seeing Captain America: The First Avenger (aka “Captain America: The Latest Crappy Superhero Movie”) I attended the more honestly named Friends with Benefits, whose three-word title tells you everything you need to know about its plot.
Mila Kunis plays Jamie, a corporate headhunter who places Dylan (Justin Timberlake) in the dream job of arts editor at GQ magazine. Dylan’s straight up Cali and Jamie’s the only soul he knows in New York (how he could land such a high profile gig with such a deficient Rolodex is beyond me), so they quickly become “friends,” although the fact that each secretly wants to boink the other makes the term dubious at best.
In any case, one evening while sitting on the couch and drinking Shiner Bock beer (without question, my favorite product placement of the year), they agree to keep their relationship strictly platonic – except in the bedroom, where they will be each other’s “slam pieces” (to use one of the film’s few printable bits of sexual jargon), thus attempting to disprove the time-tested adage that two people who share a physical attraction can’t maintain a long-term sexual relationship without one, or both, partners developing feelings for the other.
Traditionally, the best sex comedies have been about people not having sex. The Awful Truth achieved small emotional epiphanies by making its sex-starved protagonists a separated couple awaiting/dreading the finalization of their divorce, while Barbara Stanwyck’s fully clothed seduction of Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve is the definitive argument that cinematic foreplay is sexier than any depiction of the deed itself could ever be.
Against the odds, the funniest scenes in Friends with Benefits are the sex scenes, in a raunchy, don’t-leave-the-DVD-lying-around-for-the-kids-to-find sort of way. Timberlake and Kunis prove to be hilarious comedic partners in the sack, but short of turning the movie into a soft-core porno flick the sex has to stop sometime, forcing director Will Gluck (Easy A) and his team of screenwriters to concoct a subplot in which Dylan and Jamie travel to Los Angeles to visit Dylan’s father (the reliable Richard Jenkins, who saves the scenario from complete disaster), who’s suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. Feelings ensue, with predictable results.
Timberlake is a talented performer – I’m not sure there’s another actor in America who could have pulled off his sing-along version of Kris Kross’ “Jump” with such a combination of musical finesse and comic verve – but when asked to dip into the emotional well and express sadness over his father’s dementia, I was reminded of Keanu Reeves’ hilariously inept pre-coital dialogue with Lori Petty in Point Break: “I can’t describe what I’m feeling.”
Kunis is an underrated actress who seems to just be coming into her own. Watch the subtlety of her performance here versus any given episode of That ’70s Show and the difference is remarkable. (Incidentally, Kunis’ Black Swan co-star Natalie Portman appeared in her own shag buddies movie earlier this year called No Strings Attached. Its tagline was: “Friendship has its benefits.”)
Friends with Benefits takes pains to distinguish itself from other cheesy romantic comedies by creating a film-within-a-film and having Dylan and Jamie comment disparagingly on its sappy premise, yet at the same time Gluck’s use of two flash mob dance sequences ranks a Limburger on the cheese meter.
Like Dylan and Jamie – who try to have their sex and stay friends too – Gluck and company have tried to make an edgy comedy that pushes the bounds of commercial sex while also maintaining a heart of gold.
Despite some brief moments of ecstatic pleasure, it’s a proposal doomed for failure.
Friends with Benefits is currently playing at the Majestic 10 in Williston, the Roxy in Burlington, the Palace 9 in South Burlington, Essex Cinemas in Essex Jct., the Sunset Drive-In in Colchester, and the Capitol 5 in Montpelier.