Friday, July 8, 2011

Justin Timberlake Without Pants, Mila Kunis' Sideboob And Will Gluck Goes 2 For 3 With Friends With Benefits!

The Good: Consistently, laugh-out-loud funny, Wonderful acting, Fun characters
The Bad: Obvious plot arc and character development.
The Basics: Will Gluck and his team successfully turn a contrived idea into a hilarious and fun movie experience with Friends With Benefits!

Last year, my wife and I saw a movie via a preview screening that neither of us was terribly excited about - largely based on months of preview trailers that we felt showed the entire film - and we came out raving about it. It became one of my wife's favorite gifts for the winter holiday when I got her the Blu-Ray and we have watched it several times since, with delight each time. The movie was Easy A (reviewed here!) and with it, director Will Gluck got off my "Ack!" List (a spot he earned with Fired Up!). It was the credibility Gluck earned with Easy A that made me uber-excited that I scored tickets to a screening of his new film Friends With Benefits and that my wife (who had not been feeling well early in the day) rallied her health and was able to accompany me to the screening.

Quite simply, Will Gluck and his team have managed to do it again. Friends With Benefits takes an overly done and cliche idea and recreates it with enough self-referential pokes at the romantic comedy genre to make it all seem fresh and new once again. One of the games I play with movies these days is seeing how the PG-13 film will use the one "fuck" it is allowed by the MPAA. I went into Friends With Benefits without knowing its rating and was quite happy when it exposed itself as an "R-rated" film with multiple "fucks" in the first five minutes. It set me up for a movie that wasn't going to play it safe with language, visuals or concepts. And Gluck and his team delivered!

Friends With Benefits, as hard as it tries, is what it mocks. I'm not talking about how Gluck creates a parody film within the movie - amusingly titled "I Love You, I Love New You" - and comments on the inappropriate use of soundtrack, then uses the same song at the climax of Friends With Benefits; that is obvious parody and a funny joke worth the laugh it gets to the engaged audience. But as much as Gluck and his team mock the romantic comedy cliches, they use them. There is nothing so audaciously new in Friends With Benefits as to surprise moviegoers or make them feel like they have watched anything particularly new. So, Friends With Benefits has a soundtrack that might not telegraph all of the emotions, but it fills a lot of space with noisy music that is distracting or unnecessary. Regardless, viewers come away from Friends With Benefits with the feeling they have seen a higher caliber of romantic comedy than the standard fare.

Friends With Benefits is, as much as it tries to fight or deny it, pretty much the standard "two friends try having sex without complications" romantic comedy. This is a style so prevalent in contemporary cinema that it was done recently with No Strings Attached and with the more dramatic interpretation, Love And Other Drugs (reviewed here!). The fundamental difference was stated eloquently by my wife as we drove home last night. She did not like Love And Other Drugs, (among other reasons) because it started out funny and energetic and became something serious and moody. What I call "character and plot development," she called "bait and switch." What she loved about Friends With Benefits that I enjoyed as well was that it started funny and while it has some obvious heartstring moments in the last third, it never gets so serious as to make one think they are watching anything other than a well-developed comedy.

Dylan is a moderately successful blog operator whose girlfriend breaks up with him at a John Mayer concert right around the same time that Jamie's boyfriend is breaking up with her. Jamie is Dylan's headhunter, hunting for a new editor for GQ, who brings Dylan to New York City to try to seal the deal. With a tour of New York City and the help of a flash mob, Dylan takes the job and moves to the City where Jamie is the only person he truly knows. Hanging out one night, commiserating on their failed relationships, Dylan and Jamie admit to being emotionally unavailable and emotionally damaged and yet desirous of sex, so they make a pact to have sex as friends and not let it become more complicated than that.

Their experiment, predictably, goes quite well and the lack of romantic attachment allows them to be more open and honest with each other than they have been with any of their prior partners, leading to fantastic sex and a pretty solid bedrock for a relationship. So, when Jamie opens up to dating again, Dylan steps back and watches as she dates a pediatric oncologist who appears able to live with Jamie's "five date" (before sex) rule. But when that fizzles, Dylan invites Jamie back to his father's house for the Fourth Of July to heal and the true depth of their feelings comes out, with complications ensuing.

For all the good things about Friends With Benefits, someone ought to say it: Will Gluck, you are a pussy! Friends With Benefits has major plot developments around the Fourth Of July. Why didn't you release this to compete with Transformers Dark Of The Moon (reviewed here!)?! Seriously! Pussy! (FYI, I haven't taken leave of my senses here: Gluck and Screen Gems could have offered moviegoers a real option against the banal special effects film that won the 4th of July weekend and this is actually a reference to Friends With Benefits wherein Jamie gets Dylan to do something uncharacteristic simply by calling him a pussy.) Sure, Friends With Benefits might have competed against Justin Timberlake's other current outing, Bad Teacher, but this was a vastly superior movie (and it could remain that if it is not spoiled with more trailers that show more of the movie!). Regardless, writers Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and the other four writers have made a movie which might top ID4 for best 4th of July film.

What works best for Friends With Benefits is that it is funny and well-acted. The humor is smart and when it is crude, it is not upsettingly crude. So, for example, the teaser that sets up Dylan and Kayla's breakup (and features Emma Stone in a delightful bit role!) and Jamie and her boyfriend's breakup outside Pretty Woman is very funny and owes huge points to the film's editor who cut the scenes together to be exceptionally well-timed and funny. The humor continues with the initial agreement which has Dylan pitching the arrangement because "sex should be like tennis." The movie gets a comedy boost when Patricia Clarkson enters the film as Jamie's crazy mother, Lorna, and keeps the humor original with Dylan trying to urinate with an erection. Gluck is smart enough to keep that scene surprisingly classy by not making it explicit and the humor there works.

Gluck falls back on some of his successful conceits from Easy A, where he mocked "Pocket Full Of Sunshine," by lampooning Chris Cross's "Jump" and calling back to "Closing Time" a lot. The level of diction in Friends With Benefits is better than in most romantic comedies. In fact, the only comedic element that did not work quite so well was Dylan's problems with math, which becomes a running joke after the trip to Los Angeles, and could have been hinted at better earlier on in the movie. Fortunately, Gluck never detonates the joke he planted the seeds for, which would have been a tasteless bombshell that put Dylan and Jamie as siblings (Lorna does not remember Jamie's father and Dylan's Alsheimer's-riddled father mistakes Jamie for someone he once knew).

The acting, in concert with the hilarious writing and wonderful direction, helps Friends With Benefits transcend the stale formula for a romantic comedy that is constantly lampooned in the film and helps it all feel fresh once again. Jason Segal and Rashida Jones have cameos as the stars of "I Love You, I Love New You" within the film (and they get the post-credit scene which is cute enough to stay through the closing credits for). Richard Jenkins lends some dramatic strength to the latter half as Dylan's father and Jenna Elfman is resurrected from wherever she has been since Dharma & Greg to have a decent supporting role as Annie. Patricia Clarkson is more the product of typecasting as she plays yet another sage free spirit as Lorna, though Woody Harrelson plays Dylan's homosexual sports editor with genius comic timing. Harrelson's role is arguably to make the one pejorative use of the word "gay" less-offensive (Dylan's nephew's comment about "gay" Harry Potter is slightly sour), but Harrelson rules the bit role.

Mila Kunis veers away from the overly dramatic to make Jamie truly funny. Kunis has the dramatic gravitas to easily pull off the moments where Jamie must appear hurt or vulnerable, but in Friends With Benefits, viewers are reminded how she got where she is today. She is funny, she has a great sense of comic timing and it is hard not to smile when she tries to be charming. Her flirting with Justin Timberlake reads as very real and there is a spontaneous spark that comes frequently to her eyes that tells the viewer not only is Kunis having fun, but Jamie is as well. And for those for whom such things are important, Kunis's sex scenes with Timberlake are steamy, but the most one will see is a butt shot and sideboob.

Which, of course, is more than we see from Timberlake. Of course, we see his ass and his chest, but this is not Timberlake's full frontal attempt to get every fan who ever loved N'Sync to the theaters. Timberlake, for his part, has successfully reinvented himself as a real actor now. Between this and Bad Teacher it is clear that he is a very funny guy and Will Gluck plays off his innate sense of comic timing wonderfully. But what sold me on Timberlake were the two serious moments. When Dylan realizes how bad off his father's health is and when he understands just what he had with Jamie and how important that relationship is, he emotes with his eyes such a profound sense of loss and grief that the viewer is unable to resist empathizing with him.

Ultimately, Friends With Benefits is a reinvention of the romantic comedy for the stale "friends having sex" plotline. Random elements like the Shaun White cameo which initially seemed weird and disturbing work because they are called back to and developed and while I'm not much of a fan of the whole "flash mob" fad, even that works. Having seen the film twice now, this comedy holds up remarkably well over multiple viewings making it great for multiple dates or sharing it with friends. For adults looking for something truly funny this summer, Friends With Benefits is the movie we've been waiting for, even if Will Gluck was too much of a pussy to release it to compete with the big guns of Summer Blockbuster Season.

For other films with Justin Timberlake, please check out my reviews of:
Bad Teacher
The Social Network
Southland Tales


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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