It’s odd that this year two movies with the same premise were released in cinemas that offered alternative takes on the challenge of having casual sex with a friend without get emotionally involved. In January, Natalie Portman (pre-Oscar), followed her dramatic turn in Black Swan with a dose of raunchy comedy where she tried playing a believable persona who the audience could sympathize with.
While she did well at being a flirty playful presence as the script required her to do so, the emotional connection with her male counterpart was a misfire. Rom-coms of this modern age almost solely revolve around the chemistry between the two leads, otherwise it just becomes another forgettable title destined for the bargain bin or late night television viewings.
Now the second attempt at using an identical formula for laughs has been released, during the hustle and bustle of the summer movie season. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis join forces in the aptly titled, Friends with Benefits. The surprising difference is that both of them seem like they genuinely enjoy each other’s company while having the benefit of a terrific supporting cast that elevates the film above its one dimensional recipe of a plot. It’s not the year’s best comedy (that award goes to Bridesmaids) nor is it the freshest romance story out there, but it has a convincing rapport between Timberlake and Kunis which is easily more than half the battle when it comes to this specific genre.
The two “friends” in question are introduced as young and individuals who talk as witty and intelligent as the script suggests. They met through work and are instantly attracted to one another which leads of course, to sex and an agreement that neither of them fall deeply into the love territory of their future relationship. This is the type of movie that Hollywood loves to craft, where everyone has fancy jobs and where they live in extremely hip flats that don’t co-ordinate with their pay checks. Timberlake for one, works at GQ magazine which is a prerequisite for almost every New York based romantic comedy since the 70’s.
Nonetheless, the artificial bits are few and far between and don’t do much to detract from watching these two beautiful people living lives that exist only in film form. It’s only once the story sets into place and the two stars begin forming a believable connection that the joy of watching the two settles in. Timberlake and Kunis are comfortable playing off one another, firing back and forth with lighting speed and comedic ability that holds steady throughout the film’s running time. The first meeting between the two at a dinner date is a testament to their onscreen ease of conversation and sexual premonitions.
What’s energizing with this movie is how it avoids such pitfalls that plague the films that inspired it. Obviously the two encounter obstacles and emotional breaking points with each other during the course of the movie, but it happens at a natural pace that is essential to the story. Numerous times, Timberlake and Kunis are in tune with their pop culture setting and its clichés that are trapped with it, making fun of the movies that have sappy endings for the couples who are star struck in love. It’s endearing to watch two smart adept individuals be so naive and observant at the same time, it makes watching them an enjoyment for instinctive nature.
Even better is the excellent supporting cast that smoothes out the parts of the film that could have fallen flat as filler material. Jenna Elfman, Richard Jenkins, Patricia Clarkson and Woody Harrelson are among the talents who add the secret ingredient of distinctive entertainment to the film, as well as insightful helping hands to Kunis and Timberlake’s dilemma of friendship and sex.
Clarkson and Harrelson in particular are a riot as characters that deserve their own feature films for the wacky qualities they exude. Harrelson has never been gayer or as flamboyantly macho about his lifestyle then he is here, and Clarkson is a sexually misguided teenager in spirit who is a mother beyond any explanation or reasoning. They aren’t tacky or too over the top, instead their existence is a perfect compensation for the relationship that is brooding between the two leads.
It’s directly obvious the moment they meet onscreen that Kunis and Timberlake are talented actors, both gifted in comedy and drama. They show a knack for being likable beyond their good looks and are incredibly easy to watch during any situation. Timberlake has shown range from being a loathsome being (The Social Network) to here, where his presence is enthusiastically playful and charming. Kunis, owns one of the greatest smiles in modern cinema and it propels her to be the Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts of comedy while still maintaining an edge of authority. It helps that the script given to them is fresh and inventive with its dialogue, allowing ample opportunity for improve and natural reactions to be thrown into the mix.
There aren’t exactly laugh out loud moments that are required for comedies nowadays but it’s not really a glaring issue when the plot is breezy and effortless to watch with appealing actors leading the charge. The ending is a simple one that pulls no punches but it’s earned in its honesty. These two characters belong with each other and it was just a matter of time until they figured it out.
Friends with Benefits is about the ride getting to that point of understanding, where the two people involved gradually overcome their own boundaries and rules about love. Yes, it may sound cheesy but chemistry can overcome such an issue, especially with a wild and amusing supporting cast like this one has. Date movie or not, this film is a winner on multiple levels.