Thursday, July 21, 2011

In Theaters: "Friends with Benefits"

Well, the “fuck buddies” comedy sweepstakes has come to close, with less of a clear winner and more of a draw. First came January’s No Strings Attached, Ivan Reitman’s fitfully amusing but formulaic and inexplicably overlong entry, featuring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman; now we have Portman’s Black Swan co-star Mila Kunis paired with Justin Timberlake for Friends with Benefits. This one is helmed by Will Gluck, the clever filmmaker behind last summer’s sleeper hit Easy A, a witty and knowing deconstruction of teen movie clichés and literary allusions, anchored by a star-making performance by Emma Stone. Gluck’s involvement (and a supporting turn by Stone) made one hope that lightning would strike twice. Alas, Friends is only marginally better than Strings; it’s a glossy, empty after-dinner mint of a movie, endlessly predictable and surprisingly short on real laughs. And Emma Stone is only in one scene—the first.

She is the John Mayer-loving departing girlfriend of Dylan (Timberlake), a workaholic L.A. web designer; their break-up is intercut with that of Jamie (Mila Kunis) and her nothing boyfriend (Andy Samberg, wasted). Soon, Dylan and Jamie’s paths cross; she’s a New York headhunter who brings him out East to take over as art director for GQ (in a wild, wild coincidence, Mila Kunis is somehow this month’s GQ cover girl). She’s the only person he knows in NYC, so they hang out; eventually, tired of the obligations and complications of dating and commitment, and the impossible expectations placed on modern romance by Hollywood romantic comedies, they decide to just have some fun.

That first sex scene is both funny and hot; the frankness of the encounter is refreshing, and at least on the surface, Kunis and Timberlake make a good match—they have nice chemistry and good timing, and they look great together. (For what it’s worth, they spend a good half of the movie in their underwear.) But the trouble is, they never really get past that surface. They bat the fast-paced dialogue back and forth with precision, but it always sounds like dialogue. The screenplay (by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, and Gluck) doesn’t give them much in the way of characters beyond the most transparent rom-com tropes, and neither actor manages to dig much more out until they get to the serious scenes towards the end.

As a result of the somewhat shallow nature of their byplay, the picture never really takes off. The attempts to navigate serious material (like the inexplicable subplot with Dylan’s Alzheimer’s-striken dad) mostly become distractions, and while the supporting cast is loaded with valuable performers (Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman, Stone, Samberg), only Patricia Clarkson does much of anything—though she does steal every scene she’s in.

Friends with Benefits is likable as hell—it just never comes together. If his last film was any indication, Will Gluck would seem the right guy to shake up the dull, tried-and-true romantic comedy genre, but for all of the talk of the artificiality of the rom-com, Friends with Benefits seldom ventures from its template. It is not good enough to criticize the form but then revel in its excesses because you’re doing so knowingly; a better film would find a way to avoid them and make its own way. A self-aware wink is not the intellectual equivalent of a new idea.

"Friends with Benefits" opens tomorrow in wide release.

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