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Friends with Benefits (2011)
Movie Reviews

Friends with Benefits (2011)

An intelligent, perfectly cast romantic comedy with a keen awareness of its own conventions, whose formulaic plot is enlivened by a funny screenplay and wonderful performances.

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Although the January release of Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached was nothing special, it had just enough for me to give it a passing grade. We now have Will Gluck’s Friends with Benefits, and although it’s founded on the exact same premise – a man and a woman having a go at casual sex – there’s no question in my mind which of the two films is superior. Here is an intelligent, perfectly cast romantic comedy that shows keen awareness of its own conventions. If it ends exactly the way we think it will end, that’s perfectly okay; the formulaic plot is enlivened by a funny, well-worded screenplay and wonderful performances by Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, who have such natural onscreen chemistry that it’s a wonder no one thought to cast them together sooner. If there’s one thing I love, it’s when something as routine as a romantic comedy exceeds my expectations.

After disgusting me in the God-awful Bad Teacher, Timberlake returns in top form with a likeable, energetic performance – his first ever in a leading role. He plays Dylan, a Los Angeles-born graphic designer who accepts a job in New York for GQ. There, he meets Jamie (Kunis), and the two become fast friends. Both have just gotten out of bad relationships, and whereas Dylan is emotionally unavailable, Jamie is emotionally damaged. They have polar opposite reactions to Hollywood rom-coms, of which they’re intimately familiar with. It’s not merely that Dylan believes they’re unrealistic; he doesn’t appreciate the way they manipulate audiences with dialogue, visuals, and music. Jamie, on the other hand, wants it to be just like it is in the movies. She’s waiting for Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet and carry her away in a horse-drawn carriage.

In spite of their animosity towards dating and relationships, they realize that they greatly miss sex. They then come to a mutual understanding: They will augment their friendship with casual sex and make no emotional commitments. This initial decision leads to what is arguably one of the funniest sex scenes in the history of the movies. I can safely say that I’ve never witnessed characters listing their bedroom peculiarities as they undress. To fully describe the way the scene is written, edited, and performed would probably be too dirty, but more to the point, I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. To truly get a feel for it, you’re just going to have to experience it for yourself. Timberlake and Kunis work through this and the rest of the film effortlessly; they bounce lines off of each other with the same rhythmic pacing of characters in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.

What made the film even better was the fact that the leads were developed beyond obvious rom-com clichés. During a family visit to Los Angeles, for example, we learn that Dylan was at one time a stutterer with woefully underdeveloped math skills. To this day, large numbers continue to confuse him. None of this is reduced to the level of cheap comedy relief; the filmmakers show restraint and go for just the right balance between humor and heartbreak. The same level of respect can be seen in the character of Dylan’s father (Richard Jenkins), who has Alzheimer’s disease. This is the only instance I know of which it isn’t funny watching an old man walk around without his pants on. There are also a few tender moments between Dylan, his loving sister (Jenna Elfman), and his adorable young nephew (Nolan Gould), a magician in training.

Rounding out the side characters, we have Jamie’s mother, Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), who seems stuck in the days of free love and has become a bit of a freeloader. In spite of her obvious drawbacks as a mother – she’s really more of a best friend to Jamie – she isn’t without her good points. She can always be counted on for a laugh. We also have the GQ sports editor, Tommy (Woody Harrelson), quite possibly the coolest gay character ever created. Both are there for Dylan and Jamie as they realize just how complicated casual sex can be. Is there really such a thing as friends with benefits, or is that yet another fantasy concocted by Hollywood screenwriters?

Given the fact that Friends with Benefits is itself a Hollywood fantasy, chances are you already know the answer to that question. This is one of the rare instances in which knowing beforehand makes absolutely no difference. What I appreciated about this film was the humor, the heart, the spot-on casting, and the cleverness with which it was written. Consider, for example, a subtle but wise observation on the different ways in which Angelinos and New Yorkers cross the street; being from L.A., and having visited New York twice in the past ten years, I can tell you that it’s absolutely true. My favorite moment might have been early on, when Jamie waits at the airport for Dylan. She’s in a hurry to make a name card for him to notice, so she swipes one that has the name O. Penderghast written on it. Olive Penderghast was the main character in Will Gluck’s previous effort, Easy A. Had it not been one of the best films of 2010, this would be little more than a shameless act of self promotion.

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi