Friends with Benefits – 2011
Directed by Will Gluck
Starring Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Richard Jenkins, Emma Stone, Adam Samberg, Bryan Greenberg
Written by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, Harley Peyton
Four writers for one movie about spontaneous, no strings frivolity. The effect is a labored, clunky excuse for a film that shows how desperate Hollywood is to show that they are hip. Problem here is, once generic filmmakers in the movie biz decide to show you what is hip, it stops being so. It’s kind of like seeing your Dad on the dance floor at a wedding, trying to hit one of the bridesmaids at your wedding. Ugh.
When done well, like The Social Network, the movie can bring all the fogies along for the ride. In the case of Friends with Benefits, the fogies seem desperate to catch up. The desperation shows, no matter who they get to play along with them.
In this case, two relatively marketable talents, including one who was excellent in The Social Network (Timberlake) and one (Kunis) whose star keeps rising despite some mixed film choices. As they try to negotiate their sometimes clever and sometimes not so much dialogue, we sit, awkwardly, waiting for the benefits, implied by the title. Some of the better lines are self-effacing in nature, and some of the more awkward try to compare things that aren’t hip anymore (John Mayer) to things that are. I don’t remember what they said was hip, of course, and I don’t feel like watching it again to check.
The perks to watching this film mainly involve getting to watch what amounts to soft core porn with two relatively hot actors. This may appeal to some, but it was not too thrilling for me mixed with the endless talking and comments about eating too much watermelon. They go through a few motions, all strategically covered by some incredibly tight blankets. The only time there seems to be any real chemistry is when they close their eyes and mouths.
Adding to the awkwardness is a mother character who is hip because she experimented in the 70’s and doesn’t know who her daughter’s father is. She approves of all of this romping around with no commitment because there is no real consequence to her. As her daughter, Kunis’ character, Jamie, shows a fair amount of concern about this, but generally she has come to terms with her mom as wacky, but harmless. Ugh.
For his part, Timberlake’s Dylan, has some troubles as well. His father, suffering from early onset of Alzheimer’s, is getting worse. Left on the other coast for his sister to take care of, there is no bitterness indicated at all when he brings Jamie to visit. Of course that they live in a nice house on the beach might have something to do with it. The effect of his father’s disease is shown mainly as a plot device. We aren’t going to see the bad times, of course. This movie calls itself a comedy, covered with romance.
Woody Harrelson is on board, playing a macho version of a gay sports editor. If the idea of Woody unleashed as a gay man sounds appealing, well, it might have been. About the second time we see his character, it is time for him to go away and not come back. His character reminds one of the movie The Brothers McMullen, where the characters repeatedly remind one another that they are Catholic. Ugh.
Kunis and Timberlake, for their part, put in a a strange pair of performances. It feels more like the horny housewife who just happened to hook up with the pool boy type of acting than something deserving of a nation wide release. This is a disappointing effort by both, which was strangely rewarded by decent box office. They will not get away with another movie like this.
One of the bitter ironies of the film is that it takes the time to poke fun at other romantic comedies, including one intentionally lame movie within the movie starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. As they talked about the bad music and cliché combinations represented in that film, I just kept wondering whether Jones and Segel had taken time out from filming The Muppets to pretend that this joke might be funny.
This routine, of course, is meant to clear the way for their own usage of the very same tactics. One wishes that someone could have been in the room where they discussed this during production and just said, “I know what you think you are doing, but no one is going to like it.” They might watch it, but I doubt more than once.
(*1/2 out of *****)