“Friends with Benefits” (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Will Gluck, 2011
Falling in love is such great movie material that it’s a pity Hollywood these days gets it right (or funny) so rarely. Friends with Benefits is a movie that’s supposed to be smarter and funnier than the usual pseudo-romantic comedy (or rom-com) of today. But it’s a movie I didn’t like very much: for me, just another rom-com with more (and faster) dialogue than usual, trying to be at least partly a classic, stylish romantic comedy.
And stumbling — although you can give Friends with Benefits every credit for trying its damnedest to whip up a show sharp and glamorous and witty as an old-style classic romantic comedy with Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn, or Cary Grant & Hepburn, or Jimmy Stewart & Jean Arthur, and still be as sexy and candid and full of nudity and off-color jokes as the contemporary public expects. And you can even, if you’re kind, applaud the box office insurance of employing a photogenic modern hookup pair like Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. (Think of it: Timberlake‘s back and Kunis’s got him!)
Timberlake (the famed rocker and boyish looking orgiast of The Social Network) and Kunis (the wet dream of Black Swan) are very good actors and they also bring instant sex appeal with them, playing a couple who are young, well-salaried, dazzlingly photogenic, fully of cash and sex and witty one-liners, and all the things moviemakers think that audiences yearn to have and be. They’re loaded and the movie flaunts them.
He’s Dylan, an art director for a Los Angeles website. She‘s Jamie: a Manhattan-based headhunter who recruits Dylan to become the designer for GQ. Both of them are hell on wheels on wisecracks. They start trading quips before they even meet each other, and the film opens with a fairly clever little scene that juxtaposes two break-up dates, between Dylan and his son-to-be-ex, and between Jamie and hers, inter-cutting them so, for a while, we think it’s just one date between Dylan and Jamie. It’s kind of a neat idea, but like most of the movie, it’s a bit too artificial and full of itself to go anywhere interesting — except to establish that Pretty Woman is regarded by some people as a meaningful classic.
Director Will Gluck and his writers, Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, then send Dylan bustling off to New York City, to rendezvous with Jamie and get interviewed by GQ. There, the moviemakers devise some flash mob scenes (something new to me), and there’s a “meet-cute” for Dylan and Jamie where she clambers all over an airport luggage carousel chasing a suitcase while he watches her, bemused. The actress plays this scene with an embarrassed looking smile and I don’t blame her: Why would a smart New York stunner like Jamie hop on a luggage carousel when she knows the suitcase will be back in a minute or two anyway?
Soon our boy Dylan, who’s already rejected one advance from Tommy, the gay GQ sports editor (Woody Harrelson, who gets into the spirit of things by handling his lines like a gay auctioneer), is settled down in a way-over-swanky Manhattan movie apartment, and Jamie and Dylan are plopped in front of a TV screen watching a typical old rom-com. (It’s not a real one, but a fake by director Gluck, starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, and they all seem to have forgotten that there’s a com in rom-com.)
Dylan and Jamie crack wise about how silly the movie is, how silly all such movies are — much like the soon-to-be teen slasher victims in Scream — and eventually they start up a liaison where they vow never to make all the mistakes movie couples make, but instead to have an affair which they insist will be strictly physical (if not “strictly dickly“ as Tommy cracks after giving up on hetero Dylan ) and not interrupted by the kind of messy conflicts that lead to messy breakups and messy romance bestsellers and messy movies.
If they’d watched a few more movies, messy or otherwise, they’d have found that this strategy — which suggests a reverse spin on an actual Tracy-Hepburn vehicle, the 1945 Without Love (about a supposedly loveless marriage) — has been tried before, in, for example, the recent Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher dud No Strings Attached— and that it never, never works. The theme seems to be: Don’t knock loveless sex, which can be better than sexless love, and can lead to both love and sex (and big screen TVs where you can watch better movies about love or sex). That sounds like a reasonable comic premise to me — at least for a movie about affluent yuppies in New York, which I’ll admit aren’t my favorite class of people.
But never say die, especially when you’re Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. Soon these high-priced lovers are wisecracking like mad and screwing like crazy, and falling in love like we knew they would, trading rapid-fire quips and crawling together into the way-over-swanky apartment‘s big roomy bed — though unfortunately the moviemakers make them indulge in some romance movie clichés of their own. Aren’t the movies the only place where people commit fellatio and cunnilingus while covered by blankets and sheets? Well, maybe in Alaska, in deep winter. (That is not a Sarah Palin joke.)
Speaking of political humor, which has been sadly absent in many modern rom-coms, perhaps out of gutlessness — but was gloriously present in many of the golden age classics, especially in movies like Woman of the Year, His Girl Friday, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Adam’s Rib or most of Woody Allen — Friends with Benefits also has some of the more obnoxious political humor I’ve heard recently. Though indulging more often in jokes about oral sex and Alzheimer‘s Disease, the movie has a Barack Obama joke which comes across (perhaps unintentionally) as anti-Obama. It’s something about Obama‘s ears (“elephant ears” Tommy calls them) and sex appeal and an elephant’s trunk, and the audience at my screening greeted it with the deafening silence it deserved.
You can get a good movie, or a good romantic comedy with a mix of old and new, as Bridesmaids proves — you can even get a great one like Sideways — but not this time. Friends with Benefits has good intentions, sex-wise and joke-wise. But it skimps on real feeling and emotion, on the human connections that help make these movies both make you laugh and move you (something the equally raunchy Bridesmaids does have).
I don’t blame the star actors for this. (They’re just doing what they’re told.) But there‘s something, for me, very irritating about how well-fixed Dylan and Jamie are here: how the movie revels in their success and their looks and their glib patter and hottie-on-hottie sexuality, and doesn’t give them much dimension beyond it. In some ways, it really is a typical superficial modern rom-com, even if they’ve cranked up the pace of the dialogue. The hero and heroine live like a contemporary princeling and princess, get everything they could possibly want, and bitch about their sex lives — while not showing much empathy for anyone except each other and their parents. And the movie dwells as lustfully on their lifestyle as on their sex lives, treating them as almost equal turn-ons.
I’m going to say something now that may sound like heresy. One of my biggest problems with Friends with Benefits, is that, for me, Timberlake and Kunis lacked — and I even hate to use the word — chemistry. (I actually thought Timberlake and Harrelson had more.) This is not necessarily the actors’ fault, since I‘ve seen both deliver excellent performances, and they’re certifiably a couple of very sexy kids — or very sexy adults who still look like kids. The lines themselves lack chemistry. The script just makes the stars spew wisecracks at each other (not all that funny) at His Girl Friday speed, but without the underlying His Girl Friday respect, admiration and love. Director Gluck may bear part of the blame too, since this is pretty much how he handled comic interplay and relationships in both the fairly funny Easy A, with Emma Stone, and the mind-bogglingly bad Fired Up, a fiasco about football studs invading a cheerleader camp.
There’s no or little underlying emotion in the Jamie-Dylan scenes, and that’s exactly what they’re ridiculing in the phony Jason-Rashida movie. And though some may think that the rapid-fire comedy and irony-laden romances in Sturges and Hawks and Wilder and Capra lack underlying emotion too (there’s an It Happened One Night poster on a wall here), they’re wrong.
Underlying emotion is supplied instead by that reliable supporting actor pair of Patricia Clarkson, who plays Lorna, Jamie’s ex-‘70s free spirit mom, and Richard Jenkins, as Mr. Harper, Dylan‘s Alzheimers‘-stricken but still game dad. Clarkson’s and Jenkins’ scenes are sometimes in dubious taste — especially Mr. Harper‘s tendency to deliver pithy wisdom while wandering around town in his underpants — but the actors, as usual, find humanity in them. Actually, Clarkson and Jenkins have more chemistry than Justin and Mila, and I don’t even think they have any scenes together. Or blankets.