'Friends With Benefits': Chemistry Means Only So Much
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Featuring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as two young Manhattanites who meet through work, get to know each other out of proximity and decide on a you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours arrangement for complication-free sexual satisfaction -- which means we ain't really talking backs, and we ain't really talking scratching -- "Friends With Benefits" has a lot of challenges. First, it's director Will Gluck's follow-up to last year's frank, funny and fresh "Easy A," which had Emma Stone in a star-making turn as a high school student navigating the cloudy waters of desire and social tradition. Second, it's following the year's earlier effort "No Strings Attached," which featured Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher as Angelinos with a similar arrangement. Third, it has to convince us that Timberlake can carry his first leading role and that Kunis can infuse her TV-trained comedian skill set with enough real feeling to sell it on the big screen. Finally, it has to try to find new things to say about the world's oldest topic of conversation that, somehow, the movies nonetheless never really talk about.
Gluck, polishing Keith Merryman and David A. Newman's script, tackles all four of those challenges, even if his solutions never quite come together, ha ha. In fact, the best thing in the script is how carefully it walks a superbly measured line in depicting sex -- neither explicit nor coy, with physical intimacy and vigorous activity presented as ridiculous, but never humiliating. Yes, "Friends With Benefits" is rated R, as was "No Strings Attached," but while neither got too prurient aside from the occasional flash of buttocks or side boob, this film pushes the limits in stronger directions, and to funnier comedic affect. The details of Kunis and Timberlake's sex scene cannot be revealed here, in part because they're too blunt and real, but also, and more importantly, because they're too funny to spoil.
And while this film isn't quite the comedic home run that "Easy A" was, there's no denying that Kunis and Timberlake have no small amount of chemistry. Their scenes, clothed or not, fizz and pop, and they have a good sense of comedic timing as they jump on each other's lines in between jumping on each other. Timberlake has to do more heavy lifting dramatically -- while both characters have parent issues, Kunis' relationship with her scattered sybarite mom (Patricia Clarkson) is a little easier-handed than Timberlake's relationship with his Alzheimer's-afflicted father (Richard Jenkins). And both Jenkins and Clarkson are excellent, while Woody Harrelson's GQ sports editor -- a loud, loutish macho gay man -- is a joke that, while funny, is so jarring that each laugh pops you out of the movie.
The oddest thing about the film is how it savages the conventions of the romantic comedy -- as seen in a film-within-the-film featuring two cameos, again, too good to ruin -- before going back to them with obvious glee. Trying to have your cake and eat it too is one thing; claiming the cake is poison and throwing it in the trash before being found out back at the dumpster shoveling handfuls of it into your face is another. Of course Timberlake and Kunis' arrangement will be complicated by real feelings; of course friendship will fracture. The films' adherence to the expected undermines its desire to mess with expectation. For a movie featuring Kunis railing against "Hollywood bulls---" building unrealistic fantasies about romantic love, there are a suspicious number of musical numbers and last-minute races to apologize here. Gluck, though, is almost good enough to pull it off. Almost.
Every generation of filmmakers, like every generation of lovers, thinks it knows the secret to navigating the complex territories of sex and affection. There's a brief shot here where the 1969 bed-hopping wife-swapping comedy "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" is on in the background, and those who think that the arrangement presented here is especially moderno scandalous should check out the three-partner pact in 1933's "Design for Living," where Gary Cooper and Fredric March share the affection of Miriam Hopkins. "Friends With Benefits" makes the occasional misstep outside of the bedroom, but it's still more honest -- and more funny -- about the facts of life and lust than a lot of romantic comedies. It's just sad that a movie suggesting an honest and zesty approach to sex and relationships builds to such a conventional ending; it's like being promised the flexible fun of the Kama Sutra as foreplay and then getting the comedic equivalent of the missionary position as the finale.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.