In a genre where only so many plots types exist it’s not rare that the success or failure of a rom-com hangs on the chemistry between its leads. In the case of Will Gluck’s follow-up to the smart and sassy “Easy A” it was written with two particulars in mind and hell, why not?! After all Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are two it stars of the moment, having both earned respect in Oscar nominated dramas, one as egotistical entrepreneur Sean Parker in David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” the other as the human incarnation of the “Black Swan” itself. Unsurprisingly taking an altogether lighten route, “Friends With Benefits” would have itself stand out not only through the sharp interplay between its protagonists but mainly through an abundance of witty and often edging on inappropriate dialogue and shagging. Lots of shagging. It’s more “Tamara Drewe” than “Notting Hill” but Gluck and his stars do manage to breathe some life into this very modern love story.
Fed up with relationships and especially break-ups, New York headhunter Jamie (Kunis) and art-director on-the-rise Dylan (Timberlake) enter into an agreement to play tennis with each other. Which is, you guessed it, essentially a euphemism for simple, inconsequential and meaningless sex without any personal feelings whatsoever. Right. With a premise this simple (comparisons with “No Strings Attached” will abound) and an outcome as predictable as Hugh Grant’s acting choices, the good news is that the film is still entertaining and engaging. Timberlake and Kunis make a great couple that are just as enviable when they fight as when they get along. She exudes most of the spice and wild energy that dynamically drives both the film and the more restrained Timberlake forward. It’s the combination of both that has a certain x-factor and makes large stretches of the film simply fly by. Even in the third act when Gluck significantly slows proceedings down and takes time to explore some heavier yet rather touching and believable backstory, the film does not falter.
And yet, the film deceives itself in one major point: The filmmakers seem to believe that simply by “achieving” an R rating, it will count as different and fresh. As the film winds down viewers will realise that simply dropping the f-bomb (amongst other explosives) and excessive sex isn’t really enough to qualify as being different. The plot simply lumbers through the gears meaning that “Friends With Benefits” boils down to the most pedestrian among rom-coms. There are several factors that hinder the chemistry between the leads from truly saving the film from floundering, chief among them a very, very terrible film-within-a-film that is supposed to illustrate how Jamie sees her dream life. In fact, the cheesy kitsch on display couldn’t be further from what defines the character and selling it off as emotional confusion or “damage” is very rich indeed. Supporting turns by Woody Harrelson and Patricia Clarkson further liken events to generics and have nothing of interest to offer. A set-piece amongst the Hollywood sign is cringeworthy and reeks of “because we could” vibe. A further if minor quibble is the presentation of some wide-shots that betray over-saturated digital video that has nothing romantic about it whatsoever.
The film contains no original score. The prominent placement of source songs (as well as some source music composed by Halli Cauthery) is doubtlessly utilised as an emphasis of the contemporary New York setting and these feature on the soundtrack album released by Madison Gate Records. Titles by Steppenwolf, Peter Conway and most notably “Closing Time” by Semisonic are among the highlights of the CD. It’s not exactly a very romantic compilation and plays more to the spirit of the film’s two flash mob scenes – a very eclectic mix that will only be enjoyed in its entirety by a minority. It’s functionally sufficient to capture the spirit of the film but cannot elevate it in a way like the “(500) Days of Summer” soundtrack did its film.
Altogether “Friends With Benefits” doesn’t quite sit comfortably in any camp of rom-coms. It’s certainly smart and very enjoyable for a selection of more mature humour but for all the leads’ sparks, they can’t quite set the film alight on their own. However, it certainly cements the stars’ status as actors to watch.
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