Here is a movie that knows it is chock-full of your typical romantic-comedy clichés, but instead of ignoring the fact that there are millions of movies just like it, writer/director Will Gluck (“Easy A”) and co-writers Keith Merryman and David A. Newman embrace this notion by mocking many that came before it, while also paying tribute to some.
Many will compare “Friends with Benefits” to the debacle that is “No Strings Attached;” both focus on two friends who agree to have a strictly physical relationship. However, “Friends with Benefits” is actually more closely related to an episode of “Seinfeld,” entitled “The Deal,” in which Jerry and Elaine agree to have sex, after setting some ground rules to ensure their friendship remained the same.
This film is about much more than sex. Gluck has created a funny, lissome and heart-wrenching story about the barriers people put up to hide their vulnerabilities from the world.
“Friends with Benefits” opens with intermittent scenes of Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis), on opposite sides of the country, both being dumped by their respective significant others. Dylan, in Los Angeles, by his high-strung girlfriend, Kayla (Emma Stone), who tells him, he is “emotionally unavailable.” Jamie, in New York City, by her clown of a boyfriend, Quincy (Andy Samberg), who tells her, she is “emotionally damaged.”
As fate would have it, these two meet in New York City. Jamie a headhunter or “executive recruiter,” as she puts it, has been tasked with recruiting Dylan, a hotshot art director at a popular blog site based in LA, to GQ as their art director. Dylan is unsure about a big move to New York, but after Jamie gives him a sample of the Big Apple night life, starting with cocktails at an outdoor bar and ending with a flash mob at the heart of Times Square, Dylan agrees to take the job.
Soon, Dylan and Jamie become close friends, partying, relaxing and mocking romantic comedies together. One night, after mocking an uber-campy rom-com starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, Dylan and Jamie, in need of a physical connection, but not wanting the emotional baggage that comes with dating, go the abovementioned “Seinfeld” route, and set up some rules to keep their friendship as it is, while also having sex with each other.
As you would expect, this act complicates their relationship immensely and sets the movie in motion, as Dylan and Jamie must decide what they want out of life and love.
The film works thanks to the radiating chemistry of its two leads. Timberlake and Kunis exchange barbs with lightning-fast speed and perfect comic timing, while exuding a kind of natural friendship every director dreams of. The always cool Timberlake (“The Social Network”) is charismatic and confident as Dylan, once again showing us that he is certain to make an indelible mark on the film industry. The amazingly gorgeous Kunis, who last wowed us in “Black Swan,” proves she has what it takes to be a Hollywood starlet as the charming and sassy Jamie.
The supporting cast complements the charms and playful barbs of the two leads perfectly. Extreme sports master Shaun White has a wacky turn as a prickly version of himself. Woody Harrelson (“Zombieland”) is hysterical as the obnoxious and gay GQ sports editor. Patricia Clarkson (“Shutter Island”) does great as Jamie’s free spirited mom. Lastly, Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) playing Dylan’s father, suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, provides the film with many of its most tender moments.
In addition to the quick-witted story and outstanding acting, Gluck and cinematographer Michael Grady award us with some impressive visuals, from the night-time New York City skyline to the overhead shots of a flash mob’s dance routine.
The filmmakers cleverly elected not to use a musical score; Dylan even makes off-hand remarks about how the score in these types of movies dictate how audiences should feel. Instead we are presented with pop songs that for the most part pertain to the film’s central theme. Notable inclusions are: “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” by Death Cab for Cutie; “Pumped up Kicks,” by Foster the People; “Booty Call,” by G. Love and Special Sauce; “Take A Bow,” by Greg Laswell; “Tightrope,” by Janelle Monáe; “Jump,” by Kriss Kross; and “Closing Time,” by Semisonic.
“Friends with Benefits” is a charming, bawdy and genuinely touching film that will please both genders, making it a perfect date movie.
Note: Stay for a scene after the end credits.
(“Friends with Benefits” is rated R for sexual content and language. It can be seen at AMC Loews Jersey Gardens 20 and other nearby theaters.)
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