Sunday, July 24, 2011

JT and Kunis bring sexy (and smart) back to familiar "FWB"


Friends with Benefits (2011)
109 min., rated R.

Can you really just have sex with a friend and have no complications or emotions? Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are about to find out in "Friends with Benefits," the second romantic comedy this year to ask that question, but we already know the answer. Of course not, this is Hollywood! Something eventually gives and the leads fall in love, unless your leads are Jerry and Elaine from "Seinfeld." You might experience déjà vu with the premise of January's very similar "No Strings Attached" when Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman boinked each other, as did Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in 2010's "Love & Other Drugs." ("Fuck Buddies" wouldn't fly with the censors for this or the formers.) It's not like we go into a romantic comedy for unpredictable plot twists, as "Friends with Benefits" strictly adheres to formula and genre mechanics. But fresher than you might expect with an up-to-the-minute zeitgeist of iPads and iPhones, "Friends with Benefits" benefits from the appealing casting and sexy, loosey-goosey chemistry between Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis (Kutcher's eight-season co-star on TV's "That '70s Show" and Portman's black swan in "Black Swan"). 

Timberlake is Dylan, a Los Angeles blog designer who arrives in New York City for a job interview as art director at GQ Magazine. He's recruited by a vivacious headhunter named Jamie (Mila Kunis). Winning him over with a celebratory night on the town, Dylan accepts the job and gets along famously with Jamie. Both coming off bad breakups (Emma Stone and Andy Samberg in great cameos), Dylan is "emotionally unavailable" and Jamie is "emotionally damaged," but they decide one night over beer and nitpicking a romantic-comedy movie that they should begin sleeping with each other while staying pals. "No relationship, no emotions, just sex," or so they say. Bringing sexy back to old genre chestnuts, Timberlake and Kunis are so fun to watch and comfortable with each other (especially in bed) that it never feels like the script is just demanding them to get together. We actually understand why Dylan and Jamie have intimacy issues and these two have our rooting interest in seeing them figure it out. Their banter is smart, rhythmic, and funny. Beautifully big-eyed Kunis fast-talks with an adorable, self-assured spunkiness, and Timberlake capably keeps up with his charisma and comic abilities which he shows in a spontaneous singalong to Kriss Kross's "Jump." 

This attractive couple carries the movie through and is aided by a solid supporting cast. Patricia Clarkson is full of comic quirks as Jamie's flaky, oversexed mom, proving she can upend even a caricatured role (and thankfully her silly bondage scene from the trailer got the axe). Woody Harrelson is underused but colorfully gets a laugh nearly every line he delivers as a proudly gay GQ sports editor. The indispensable Richard Jenkins, playing Dylan's poor father in the early stages of Alzeimer's, is used in a touching subplot that could've easily come off cloying. Jenna Elfman is a welcome, down-to-earth presence as Dylan's older sister who's too wise to believe that Jamie and her brother are just friends. Pro snowboarder Shaun White gives a curious cameo; his first appearance falls flat, but the second works only because of Jenkins and Timberlake's punchline. 

Director Will Gluck (who's two for two after "Easy A") shows fleet pacing and energy from the get-go of his snappy script co-written with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman. Some of the editing and pacing starts out so whiplash-fast, until it finds a smoother, more natural flow. The on-location set pieces shot at the Hollywood sign and Grand Central Station earn their laughs. "Friends with Benefits" almost enters Kevin Williamson territory ("Scream") with some self-aware moments (as when Kunis yells "Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you stupid liar!" at a poster of "The Ugly Truth") and then playfully slips into its own clichés. Because romantic comedies are made for hopeless romantics, it's all about how we get there rather than the destination. There are two flash mobs in N.Y.C., a running joke involving Semisonic's one hit "Closing Time" that sweetly pays off by the end, and Jason Segel and Rashida Jones gamely play the romantic leads in an amusingly drippy fake movie playing on TV. 

Any movie that brazenly puts down cheesy-bad Hollywood romantic comedies and Harry Potter on more than one occasion is showing more effort than the norm. Raunchy but sweet, "Friends with Benefits" works like a charm.

Grade: B +

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