MOVIE REVIEW: Friends with Benefits
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS-- 4 STARS
Besides the obvious cardinal importance of chemistry, every great romantic comedy film has to have one other element that rises it above the usual formulaic and terrible contenders that try all call themselves romantic comedies. That #2 element is "layers." If your romantic comedy main characters are caricatures or one-dimensional archetypes, then your audience won't identify with them, fall for them, or root for them. You've got to have something more than chemistry and two pretty faces. That's where the layers come in.
The "great" romantic comedies have layers. Take the long-term and detailed look into a couples' history in When Harry Met Sally..., the emotional widower-setup of Sleepless in Seattle, and all of the little things you learn about Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock along the way in The Proposal. Those three examples (there are so many more) fit the bill as great romantic comedies because they add layers to their lead characters. Those layers elevate their story and chemistry above the usual "meet cute" and "happily ever after" storytelling.
How does a great romantic comedy get those layers? The answer is great screenwriting that improves on the typical archetype. Every romantic comedy introduces your couple and gives you the same basics as a Match.com profile would: their naturally successful careers, their likes and dislikes, their hard luck with relationships, and a varying degree of commitment phobia. Just like that online profile, such a cursory description is as shallow as sidewalk puddle.
The new romantic comedy, Friends with Benefits, on the surface, doesn't tread into uncharted romantic comedy territory. We've seen the cliche mixing-sex-with-friendship premise before, even this year already with No Strings Attached starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. We still get those same basic introductions too. Justin Timberlake is Dylan, a young good-looking L.A. online ad director who recently got out of a suffocating relationship (nice Emma Stone cameo). Mila Kunis is Jamie, a young good-looking N.Y. employment headhunter who recently got out of a suffocating relationship (nice Andy Samberg cameo). Where Friends with Benefits blossoms and elevates itself is in the layers that follow.
They meet when Jamie is hired to bring Dylan to New York for a big job interview at GQ and is in charge of introducing him to the city and helping GQ seal the deal. They hit it off, Dylan takes the job, and she's his only N.Y. friend. Dylan and Jamie continue to hang out often and confide in each other's frustrations over relationships and the complications they create. They miss the sex and make a pact to just have sex as friends-while-staying-friends for purely physical reasons, vowing to leave out the emotions, affections, intimacy, and any other relationship hurdles. Just as you expect with this familiar premise, at some point, it's going to become more than just sex for one of them, other relationships are going to get in the way, and one of them is going to fall in love.
On just the route of that familiar romantic comedy premise alone, Friends with Benefits already wins. However, the more the movie goes on, the more layers appear. Writer-director Will Gluck, who delivered the fantastic and smart Easy A last fall, gives Dylan and Jamie very non-cliched quirks and tweaks that will surprise you. Both parts (particularly Dylan's) bring a deep character history to the table behind the usual likes and dislikes you expect. You never feel like you're watching Justin Timberlake in an SNL skit or Mila Kunis's That 70's Show curse (F-U, Topher Grace) happening.
Academy Award nominees Patricia Clarkson and Richard Jenkins are delights playing very atypical single parents full of influence and flaws to Jamie and Dylan, respectfully. They are eclectic, even dramatic, and far from stock Hollywood comedy parent casting. Woody Harrelson's gay sidekick to Timberlake is the closest thing you'll find to a cliche, but even his character is unabashedly honest and real. Pay attention and you'll also get a kick out of the cheesy movie-within-the-movie starring Jason Segal and Rashida Jones.
All of it, while it may read as quirky and different, works and plays extremely well for R-rated laughs in Friends with Benefits. An even bigger treat is that Gluck, Timberlake, Kunis, and Harrelson deliver an R-rated romantic comedy that doesn't stoop or settle for gross-out or gratuitous sight gags to sell its rating. Friends with Benefits plays above that and doesn't need them (though you ladies will be happily treated to plenty of JT). It qualifies very well as that crowd-pleasing romantic comedy audiences love and brings the "layers" that puts it near the greats in its genre.
LESSON #1: DON'T BE EMBARRASSED BY YOUR FAMILY-- As described earlier, Richard Jenkins and Patricia Clarkson play very different romantic comedy parents than the norm. Jenkins is Dylan's often pant-less Alzheimer's sufferer father and Clarkson is a Jamie's shagadelic free spirit mother. For both, the loves of their lives have left them and they commonly embarrass their grown children. Don't be ashamed of your parents, no matter how flawed they are. They are each half of what makes the best of you. Love their quirks because they are part of your own quirks.
LESSON #2: LIFE IS TOO SHORT, SO DON'T WASTE A MINUTE OF IT-- Nobody likes a workaholic. While you give everything to make your career roll, you might miss out on the prime years of your life and the chance for fun, even if that fun is emotion-less sex. Nobody likes to waste their time in a dead-end relationship either. The "one" is out there for you. Don't string someone else or yourself along when you're missing out on something better, especially if that something better is really good in the sack.
LESSON #3: "FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS," AND ALL OF OTHER NICKNAMES FOR IT, NEVER WORK-- Call it "friends with benefits," "booty calls," or "f--- buddies." Whatever you call it, such a relationship has its limits. If you need more than sex, it's not going to work. Whatever it tries to be, also know that it never works out in the end. You don't see decade-long booty call relationships or people that "stay friends." The romantic comedy cliches are true even in real life. At some point, one or both halves of the "arrangement," will want something more, have emotion take over, become jealous of a real relationship, or inevitably fall in love. That "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" word (or worse, "marriage") is going to come up at some point.