Forget all No Strings Attached comparisons: While I admit to enjoying that movie (What can I say–I love a good bad rom-com), I also contend that Friends With Benefits is everything that No Strings Attached should have been. The latest sex buddy movie has less screwball and more hearty yet outrageous humor, better love scenes, and a more compatible cast playing a slew of more likable characters. And dare I mention that any film featuring flash mobs automatically makes it superior.
Taking place on both sides of the continental US, director Will Gluck (Whose previous film Easy A is referenced in this film in the form of an Emma Stone cameo and Patricia Clarkson as the female protagonist’s mother yet again, and make sure you watch the beginning airport scene for an Easter egg that you’ll get a kick out of) documents a fictional account of a modern young adult dream: success, independence, exciting new friendships and adventures, and satisfying no-strings-attached sex. But that dream is complicated by those little things we called emotions for our two lead characters. After being dumped by his girlfriend for being “emotionally unavailable,” up-and-coming LA online media maven Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is asked by New York recruiter Jamie (Mila Kunis), a recent dumpee herself, to be interviewed for the art director position at GQ Magazine. Although he is originally unsure to move to New York for the position that’s immediately offered to him, he accepts. The two develop close ties, and after a late night chat, they discover that they both miss having sex but not being tied down with relationships–so naturally, they do the deed with each other and embrace the benefits of it. It’s liberating at first, but after Dylan invites Jamie to meet his family in LA, the casual relationship becomes something deeper than the both of them meant for it to be.
From that turning point, it’s easy to see where the film goes and for a romantic comedy that tries to move away from the norm, it does become the norm. It also gets a little unexpectedly depressing when we see the structure and story behind Dylan’s family, which includes his father (Richard Jenkins), his older sister Annie (Jenna Elfman), and her son Sammy (Nolan Gould). However, the romantic and familial complications make the film a little more believable, unlike the father-dating-son’s-ex-girlfriend subplot in No Strings Attached.
Importantly, the film wouldn’t be as watchable if the sparks didn’t fly between Timberlake and Kunis, so much that you actually hope that they stay friends—with or without the benefits—and not giving in to the cliche of Hollywood romance. But even when their relationship inevitably goes further, they’re a joy to watch together. It’s even more impressive that they turn in fine individual performances. Kunis is as lively and infectious as always, and a little bit of a heartbreaker in her dramatic scenes. However, more noteworthy is Timberlake, who proves that if he can be a great comic actor given the right role. I personally thought he was miscast as Sean Parker in The Social Network and haven’t liked him in much else other than the mediocre Bad Teacher, but he demonstrated some dimensionality as a leading man in Friends With Benefits. A good part of it is how well he plays off of Kunis. However, playing a smart and creative professional that’s not the founder of Napster and a loving and worrisome son, brother, and uncle with an interesting past is something that he manages to pull off with commendable ease.
The supporting cast is just as delightful as the two leads: In addition to Jenkins, Elfman, and Gould, Clarkson as Jamie’s insightful and former hippie mom is a silver platter, though pretty similar to what Stone’s mom was in Easy A. The gold would be Woody Harrelson, who plays a fabulous and flamboyant GQ colleague of Dylan in an unlikely male sidekick role. There’s some wonderful eye candy in the form of Bryan Greenberg, and snowboarder Shaun White plays himself in a fantastic recurring cameo. Then there’s the opening sequence featuring Stone and Andy Samberg, brilliantly edited and serving as an engaging, thoughtful, and funny intro to the film. But some of those smaller roles merely added to the film–It’s not one that needs veteran actors and short appearances by other top-caliber young talent to get by, because despite its flaws, it’s good enough in itself.
Though you gotta admit: The flash mobs, Katherine Heigl and Harry Potter mentions, makeshift looks into the GQ offices, impromptu
Third Eye Blind Semisonic and Kris Kross singalongs by Timberlake, and other various references to classic and current pop culture make this a truly trendy movie. It’s not exactly the modern anti-romantic comedy that it strived to be, but thanks to its well-cast leads and ensemble and a script that’s both risque and a bit sappy and all-around entertaining, it’s a movie that’s somehow just right for this day and age’s young crowd.