See that photo? The one immediately above this writing? The one with a goofy-looking Timberlake unaware that his acting days are numbered, and a Mila Kunis grinning through layers of makeup and the knowledge that this may be as good as it gets for her? It speaks a thousand words, all of which have been spoken before in one rom-com or another. Almost a twin to this year’s No Strings Attached, Mila Kunis follows her Black Swan co-star Natalie Portman into fluffy territory to appease the studio gods. Like most deities, these gods may be accused of being completely out of touch with their masses, except for the little fact that rom-coms keep doing great business at the box office.
Dylan (Justin Timberlake, Bad Teacher) and Jamie (Mila Kunis, TV’s Family Guy) have recently broken up with their significant others, and are determined to get on with their lives. When Jamie brokers a new job for Los Angeles client Dylan in New York, he moves out there to take a job with GQ Magazine. Ste on not having a romantic relationship, the duo agree to have a purely sexual one with no strings attached. Complications arise when both parties have significant others enter their lives. Romance ensues.
Almost every romantic comedy is exactly the same, and the only real surprise in Friends With Benefits is exactly how much this film is a carbon copy of its predecessors. Perhaps if the film had gone with the title of “Fuck Buddies” then it would have at least had that as a drawcard, but as it stands everything about this film is generic. From the artificial construct of the sex pact, through to the eccentric parents and even the beautiful beachside getaway with the extended family (a motif already used in this year’s Just Go With It and Something Borrowed) and the inevitable conclusion, there will be no surprises here. It’s almost as if the producers bought the rights to Semisonic’s “Closing Time” and Kriss Kross’ “Jump”, both of which Timberlake performs throughout the film, and asked the crack hack writing team of (deep breath) Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Harley Peyton and director Will Gluck to build a lazy story with obvious product placement around them. No, scratch that. It’s exactly like that.
Where No Strings Attached had likeable enough leads, one of whom was a recent Oscar-winner, there is little to be said for the talents of either of these puppet. Timberlake simply can’t perform as well on screen as on stage, and his few good performances have been elicited by a handful of decent directors. Debut feature film director Gluck is not the man to extract this from Timberlake, although he is light years ahead of his baffling Bad Teacher appearance. Similarly, Kunis only seems to perform well when she has a strong opposite number, but let’s face it: Black Swan aside, she has yet to really have her talents tested. The supporting players, on the other hand, are all fabulous: Woody Harrelson elevates the “gay best friend” to a new level, and provides the handful of genuine laughs to be had in the film, while Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s mum is delightfully nutty, recalling her similar hippie-esque role in Easy A. The seasoned Richard Jenkins is excellent as the Alzheimer’s stricken father of Timberlake, but often feels as though he’s wandered in from another movie.
Friends with Benefits is a comedy about sex that, despite the restricted rating in Australia, gets all coy when it comes to the subject of rutting. Like No Strings Attached, even with the frequent semi-nudity (SPOILER: Kunis has a stunt bum in one key scene), sex is treated as an amusing punchline, or a coy wink at the audience. With so many great films dealing with the politics of sex, this adds very little to the canon.
Friends with Benefits was released in Australia on 18 August 2011 from Sony.