Director Will Gluck’s Friends With Benefits, starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as two hanky panky buddy protags, is a frothy old-skool-with-a-modern-twist rom-com that taps into a deep vein of Hollywood romance-making spanning Preston Sturges’s screwball heart slappers from the 40’s to Nora Ephron’s fatty fried coms of the 80′, 90’s and 00’s.
Two recently dumped middle/upper class NY Americans, Dylan (Timerlake) and Jamie (Kunis), decide they want sex without complications and learn, of course, that sex comes with complications. Dylan is an online entrepreneur head hunted and recruited by GQ Magazine; Jamie is the recruiter who gets a bonus from his addition to the payroll.
Gluck and co-screenwriters Keith Merryman and David A Newman generate just the right amount of self-referential playfulness. Dylan and Jamie watch a corny movie and observe that things don’t work out that way in real life. They talk about how the director’s use of music is supposed to manipulate our emotions. They talk about how fabulous endings are the habitat of fiction. Gluck acknowledges the genre’s “rules” then carefully adheres to them, with a twist or two.
A sub-plot involving Dylan’s father (Richard Jenkins), who suffers from Alzheimer’s, is nicely and warmly played and doesn’t linger too heavily on emotional pivots. The father and son relationship culminates in a scene in which a simple action translates more efficiently than a page, or a dozen pages, or dialogue could. Sometimes good screenwriting boils down to a simple gesture.
When Dylan takes his pants off and dines with his old man (that might sound wrong, but it’s not) he finally accepts his sickness and the point is made succinctly and poignantly, a whiff of fresh air in a genre that often overloads on sentiment. One or two more developed supporting characters would have rounded off the story nicely (the obvious choice would have been to flesh out Woody Harrelson’s role as a gay fashion editor).
Flashes of in vogue modernity scatter across the running time: there’s iPhone-esque finger flicking across the credits, shots of websites and new age publishing and two key scenes involving flash mobs.
Timerlake and Kunis are a winning combination who generate the required sizzle, but, crucially, they also generate a strong sense of camaraderie — emphasising the “friends” part of the title. There is lots of bitchy to-and-fro and a familiar riff on sex is never just sex. The dialogue could be bouncier, the plot a little sharper, but if you buy into the central relationship, Friends With Benefits plays unexpectedly well.
Friends With Benefits’s Australian theatrical release: August 18, 2011.