Will Gluck’s “Friends With Benefits” – A smart and capable sex-romp

Friends With Benefits is not the first R-rated comedy (this year) to try and tackle the subject of friends having casual sex, but it is certainly the most successful. Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached, which was surprisingly schmaltzy and un-raunchy for a film whose inception was a script called “Fuckbuddies”*, managed to fall prey to a host of rom-com clichés, and became quite tonally bizarre by its end. “I’m the guy she marries. You’re just the guy she used to fuck a few times.” Does a line like this (easily that film’s most memorable and disturbing) really belong in a comedy? But for all of that film’s romantic and tonal shortcomings, it might have still been a successful sex comedy if it hadn’t fallen prey to the double death knell of uninteresting characters having uninspiring sex.

Friends With Benefits, from Easy A director Will Gluck, seems as aware of romantic comedy clichés as it is determined to avoid them. Executive head-hunter Jamie (Mila Kunis) and magazine art director Dylan (Justin Timberlake) speak quite frankly of their views on love and relationships, but always through the filter of cinema (by way of an atrocious film-within-a-film starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones). The strength of Friends With Benefits lies as much in the captivating chemistry between its leads as the bold choices in its screenplay. The film doesn’t tell us that Dylan and Jamie are friends, by way of some shared off-screen history or common acquaintances. It shows them becoming friends from the outset, and the two completely pull it off. Kunis and Timberlake’s delivery feels a bit theatrical in the first act, but for a pair of complete strangers who are believably hitting it off, a bit of heightened, first-date performance doesn’t go amiss. As their friendship develops, they are as believable confiding in each other emotionally as they are at giving each other a bit of good-natured shit-talking, and that’s really all this friendship needed.

Oh, and did I mention that they have a whole lot of hot, dirty sex? The first half of this film is a delightful and unrelenting sex romp, and that’s exactly what it needed to be. With the exception of some awkwardly drawn sheets and obvious body doubles, this film’s depiction of sex feels as authentic as the majority of its dialogue.

Woody Harrelson may be the glaring exception. His gay sportswriter, Tommy (who commutes from Jersey by boat, and whose first line includes the phrase “trolling for cock”) is about as cartoonish a character as there is in the film, but is saved entirely by Harrelson’s commitment and delivery. In fact, Tommy is a fine example of the tenuous relationship with reality that is at play in this film. Friends With Benefits will be trifling and silly when it feels the need to (a completely unnecessary sequence atop the Hollywood sign comes to mind) but it will always return to a place of credible emotional resonance.

Dylan and Jamie’s relationship evolves nicely as we learn more about their respective families, and this is where Jamie may have been a bit short-changed. Jamie’s mother Lorna is a nice comedic turn from Patricia Clarkson, but the character feels just a little bit slight when compared to Dylan’s family, whose storyline takes an unexpectedly serious turn (which featured some brilliant supporting work from Richard Jenkins). To see Dylan and Jamie struggle with something a bit less pleasant was both unexpected and welcome, and only served to make them more believable as friends. And what’s more, it reinforced their credibility as characters with emotional lives outside of what we see on screen.

Friends With Benefits is both a fun, sexy romp and a capable romance, but it is also surprisingly emotionally resonant. Rather than forcibly building toward some insipid romantic climax, we simply get to see these two exist as friends for a while. And as this slice of their collective life went on, I found myself rooting for the duo to work out, but not particularly caring how they managed it. While the likability of these characters demands a certain Hollywood ending, this film almost feels as if it could just as easily end with them staying friends or staying in love. But more importantly, either outcome would have felt completely earned and satisfying.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

*Thanks to Peter Sciretta from /Film for making sense of the convoluted title history of these two films.

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2010 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Jonah Hill – Cyrus, Cyrus

In this film from Jay and Mark DuPlass, most of the film’s dialogue was improvised by the actors, and I can only imagine what kind of direction the brothers gave to Jonah Hill as the title character. Creepier… Wider eyes… Like you’re boring into my soul with a searing fireplace poker… This film presents an utterly bizarre, almost marriage-like relationship between Cyrus and his mother (Marisa Tomei), and an instant antagonism for her budding romantic interest, played surprisingly straight by John C. Reilly. All three actors boast a fantastic chemistry, but it’s Jonah Hill’s performance that is easily the most memorable and comedically disturbing.

#4: Armie Hammer – Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, The Social Network

I don’t generally give credit to an actor simply because of the likely-difficult circumstances of production (I’m sure Sam Worthington’s Avatar shoot was no picnic), but Armie Hammer managed to navigate the movie-magic vagaries of playing composited crew-rowing twins while simultaneously imbuing each of them with a distinct and memorable personality. The level of sympathy for these characters will likely depend on your feelings on the Facebook/Harvard Connection litigation (ongoing as of this writing), but Hammer’s take on the brothers Winklevi never waivers from portraying them as consummate and forthright “gentlemen of Harvard”. Even as they seem determined to bring down the ostensible antihero of the tale, they never quite seem like true villains – they are honest, self-conscious, and perhaps a little naive. Hammer manages to convey all of the dimensionality and noticeably distinct personalities amid Sorkin’s signature rapid-fire dialogue, turning in two of the most memorable performances in an equally impressive cast.

#3: Andrew Garfield – Eduardo Saverin, The Social Network

Minor spoilers for the film, and to a lesser extent, real life, will follow.
The effectiveness of The Social Network hinged on a great many things, but easily the most important aspect of the film is the erstwhile friendship of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin. Without Zuckerberg, there’s no Facebook. Without the relationship with Saverin, there’s no movie. Garfield and Eisenberg had a great comedic chemistry (a scene in which Saverin explains to Zuckerberg his treatment of a pet chicken is easily one of the funniest in the film), but Garfield also played the character with such earnestness and emotionality that this relationship and its inevitable dissolution were utterly captivating to behold. What happens to Saverin is business, to be sure, but the film manages to also sell it as a significant personal betrayal. While this owes a great deal to Sorkin’s writing, it is Garfield’s heartbreaking final scenes that make it succeed so masterfully.

While Garfield is receiving this award for The Social Network, I was also impressed by his turn in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. I can’t imagine what sort of Spider-Man he’ll be, but I’m a lot more interested in finding out after such a remarkable year of introductory performances.

#2: John Hawkes – Teardrop, Winter’s Bone

While Jacki Weaver may have played my favorite villain this year, it is John Hawkes who beats her out for the most terrifying screen presence. Given his unassuming and light comedic performance in 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, and his thoroughly likeable run on HBO’s Deadwood, I was completely blown away by Hawkes’ transformation into the heroine’s wiry meth-addict uncle. From my original review:

His physique was more or less unchanged (except for a slightly graying beard), but his demeanor was something new and thoroughly intimidating. Every word Teardrop says seems to carry a simmering threat of violence, and although the character actually perpetrates very little, Hawkes brings a fiery intensity that makes him downright terrifying to watch.

He and Jennifer Lawrence match each other’s grit quite nicely, and their unlikely alliance was crucial to the film’s effectiveness.

#1: Christian Bale – Dicky Eklund, The Fighter

As I noted in the podcast review, Christian Bale has mostly approached his last few years’ worth of roles in a gruff and humorless fashion, and the resulting performances have not been too impressive. The moment Dicky Eklund steps into frame in the film’s opening street scene, I forgot all of that. This character is such a firecracker. As Eklund saunters down the streets of Lowell, Mass. greeting every inhabitant he comes across, Bale utterly oozes with charisma. His physical and verbal commitment to this character is unparalleled in this cast or any other film this year.

This is the self-destructive crackhead you’d love to be friends with. At the outset, he’s wiry, twitchy and completely high in every scene, but just a load of fun to be around. He plays the most dysfunctional member of a severely dysfunctional family, and yet every one of his early scenes is an absolute pleasure. Minor spoiler, revealed in the trailer: When the character detoxes in the second half of the film, Bale manages to make the personality change believable, and yet still keeps the character completely engaging even without hopping uncontrollably as he did in the first half. This is the best Bale performance in several years, and easily boasted enough screentime to rightfully be considered for Best Actor. But the Academy has spoken

Honorable Mentions:

  • Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in The Social Network
  • Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris in I Love You, Phillip Morris
  • Jeremy Renner as James Coughlin in The Town
  • Matt Damon as LaBoeuf in True Grit
  • Mark Ruffalo as Paul in The Kids Are All Right

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.