But she did. A lot. Here’s the proof.
It’s Just Sex. We’re Just Friends. You Know the Rules. Etc., Etc.
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: July 21, 2011
“Friends With Benefits,” a breezy, speedy and (no kidding) funny comedy with a nicely matched Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis that is about love and sex in the age of social networking, gets some of its juice and tang partly by trash-talking its own genre. The setup is familiar, as are the essential elements: a single man and a single woman, two battered hearts yet a pair of resilient, eager, pretty bodies. But Ms. Kunis’s character is dark and savvy, not blond and dippy, and when she comically rails against an unseen Katherine Heigl you may sigh with relief (fingers crossed) that you’re watching the “Scream” of romantic comedies.
Much as the first “Scream” movie gave horror cinema a jolt with self-consciously knowing characters who knew the bloody ins and outs of the genre — and were sadistically subjected to those clichés firsthand — “Friends With Benefits” starts from the premise that its characters, and you, are sick of the romantic comedy clichés they may secretly, or not so secretly, adore. In other words, the director Will Gluck, who wrote the script with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, doesn’t just want to have his romantic comedy cake and eat it too, he also wants to throw it in your face and make you laugh as you lick the icing off your lips. The results are about as naughty as that sounds (not very), but it also makes for a fairly giggling good time.
A corporate headhunter but, you know, cool, Jamie (Ms. Kunis) meets Dylan, a Web site art director (Mr. Timberlake) , when she lures him to New York to interview for a spot at a men’s magazine. They meet cute — she’s scrambling atop an airport baggage carousel and he’s wide-eyed and willing —and they’re soon off and running, or really walking and talking, mostly talking. She needs him to take the job to earn her bonus and so sweetens the deal by showing him around what she calls the real New York. That this tour includes a flash mob shouldn’t be held against Jamie, not least because Ms. Kunis is fast proving that she’s a gift that keeps giving to mainstream romantic comedy.
One reason is that she doesn’t play the stock girl, teary and needy or plucky and needy, but rather a woman who can go joking round for round against men. Ms. Kunis looks itty-bitty enough to hang on a charm bracelet, but her energy is so invigorating and expansive and her presence so vibrant that she fills the screen. If she continues to score roles like this, she might even be able to break out of the genre. Of course she’ll probably be forced to compete with the equally appealing and tiny — if paler and pinker — Emma Stone, who, with several other name actors, makes the most of a tiny role. Mr. Gluck directed Ms. Stone in “Easy A,” a lightly (very lightly) self-aware flick about a high-schooler play-acting as Hester Prynne.
The genre self-consciousness in “Friends With Benefits” extends from the throwaway “Pretty Woman” nods to a goofy (and entertainingly bogus) romantic movie within a movie that Jamie and Dylan watch after their initial business relationship turns into something a bit more touchy-feely and squealy. Having both been dumped, they decide that an occasional quickie with a friend is a perfect post-romance pick-me-up. Much like the recent similarly themed if less satisfying and cruder “No Strings Attached,” “Friends With Benefits” uses sex and bared skin to get at questions about the possibility of romantic love between true male and female equals. After all, without Mommy and Daddy, religion, community or a ticking clock forcing the issue, what’s the point of settling down (or just settling)?
Mr. Gluck largely distinguishes himself in this movie by the casting (Woody Harrelson plays a randy gay colleague of Dylan’s, and Patricia Clarkson shows up as Jamie’s mom) and by directing the actors to talk at warp speed. Jamie and Dylan do more than trade teasing laughs, they slam their lines like Chinese Ping-Pong champs, hurling the quips so fast at times that it’s a wonder they don’t gaspingly reach for the oxygen. That speed makes the duds easier to miss and the dreary heavy stuff easier to ignore, and may of course also remind you of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, a comparison that Mr. Gluck hopefully flags with a conspicuous poster for “It Happened One Night.”
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert kept their distance with a blanket in that 1934 gem, whereas only their Calvins usually get between Jamie and Dylan, and rarely for long. That said, despite the sex and chatter, which includes some amusing bossy instruction, it’s the sentiment that keeps you hooked.
Too bad the whole thing is so very hard on the eyes: “Friends With Benefits” is certainly likable, but it may be the ugliest digitally shot movie ever released by a major studio. The problem isn’t the serviceable shooting, the camera setups and the like, but the poor digital quality that makes New York look like a blurred Xerox copy and puts so much yellow in the actors’ faces, especially Ms. Kunis’s, you may think it’s their livers that are giving them trouble instead of their hearts.
I hate the title of the movie and I hate the idea of the plot even more (talk about predictable), but referencing “It Happened One Night” and screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s works for me. I’ll be going to see this.