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.