“FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS” IS FAR MORE CHARMING, HILARIOUS, AND OBSERVANT THAN ITS NATALIE PORTMAN COUNTERPART
Keeping a stable emotional relationship can be a massive inconvenience and rarely looks like it does in the movies. This we all know. So do Dylan and Jamie, our two main characters in “Friends with Benefits.” They’ve also seen all the same romantic comedies we have, and frequently reference a few of them with obvious disdain (most obviously when Jamie screams “I hate you, Katherine Heigl” at a “The Ugly Truth” poster right after a breakup). They both have the ideology that, since the clichéd Hollywood happy ending is impossible to attain, they might as well skip having an emotional relationship and just jump right into the sexual benefits that come with a healthy relationship.
Seem familiar? Well, it should. While this film stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, there was another film not that long ago, in January to be exact, entitled “No Strings Attached” which starred Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. Both films have the same basic premise: two people who are sick of the emotional complications that come with relationships and just want to have all the fun with none of the strings. Yet of the two, “Friends with Benefits” actually asks more of its characters and expects them to answer as a real person would. This flows far more and feels less like a romantic comedy than it should.
I liked “No Strings Attached” more than I expected to. Whether it was due to the on-again-off-again humor itself or the fact that my judgment was probably clouded due to my adulation for Natalie Portman, I plead the fifth. But here, in a genre world lamely ruled by Jennifer Aniston and Ashton Kutcher, I’d go so far as to say that “Friends with Benefits” is the best romantic comedy in years.
Yes, yes, yes… I know I like to pile on the hyperbole and superlatives, but bear with me here.
The first thing “Friends” does right is casting a couple that actually has some chemistry. Portman and Kutcher in “No Strings Attached” worked… I guess… but they were more little cardboard boxes that helped move the jokes along. Fine with me, in that case. The jokes were sometimes really funny. But where Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis succeed where Kutcher and Portman failed is by having real chemistry and real conversation. Mila Kunis is hot, yes. Justin Timberlake is a male sex symbol, sure. Both they both bring more acting chops to the table than most romantic comedies deserve. This may be what, perhaps, makes this film much better than quite a few of its recent predecessors. Both actors take turns in being witty, horny, forlorn, and just plain unadulterated human. They feel far more human than cardboard, which is – I think – the best thing I can say about them.
The jokes, unlike the majority of romantic comedies, don’t merely strike a few times in the middle of a bunch of dead space. “Benefits” makes its characters oddly observant of the world around them and the culture they – and we – inhabit. The opening sequence starts with both Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) having their significant other (played by Emma Stone and Andy Samburg in two of the film’s many outstanding cameos) trivially break up with them. This starts us off on a different way for romantic comedies using dialogue. The “Social Network”-like speed of dialogue and natural wit ‘feels’ right, for once, rather than being words written on the page to sound funny. The spots where the film goes beyond just funny and becomes hysterical is when it stops trying to outwit us and just lets the characters do the talking. No joke, the first intimate scene had me in stitches due to some Aaron Sorkin-like writing magic. For once, these characters aren’t emotionless puppets manipulated by writers who haven’t been laid in years – they think quickly and talk even faster. Timberlake’s childhood obsession with and impromptu singing to Kris Kross’ “Jump” is, alongside Jason Segal’s hysterical cameo as the film-within-a-film’s romantic protagonist who says every single cliché in the book, one of my favorite parts of the film.
Now I hate saying a movie has “heart.” Rarely does such a thing exist – and when it does, it shouldn’t be referred to in such a now-derogatory way. This movie does have an emotional core sorely lacking in many others of its ilk. This positive change can be aimed towards the acting of Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, and the ever-amazing Richard Jenkins. Clarkson and Jenkins create some powerful scenes that could have fallen woefully flat without their performances, turning their prospective clichés into powerful statements, while Harrelson is probably at his funniest similar to “Zombieland.” That’s the magic of this film, I think. It takes clichés and somehow manages to spin it even while still catering to it in a small way. The acting all around was pretty superb for the genre.
The cameos are the best part of the film. From Masi Oka (shockingly inquiring on whether Timberlake is a real American due to his snarky comments on American airlines) to Woody Harrelson (as a gay GQ sports editor who keeps hoping Timberlake will change his mind on his orientation) to Emma Stone (whose obsession with John Meyer is psychotic) to Shaun White (who in his self-parody ginger rage has perhaps the best cameo of the movie). Every single appearance got a genuine lasting laugh out of me.
Oddly observant of culture norms and expectations, “Friends with Benefits” is amusing in its own observations on relationships. “No Strings Attached,” while periodically funny in some really positive ways, still never quite figured out how to escape the cliché formula. It worked well with the film, but you knew that you were watching the same thing you’ve seen before – just a bit funnier and with Natalie Portman (and yes, I’m dedicated to squeeze her name in as much as possible here because she’s most likely not doing another movie for a while and I’m already feeling bad about the prospect of not using her name for a while). Yet “Friends” generally surpasses genre boundaries (although it still can’t escape the dreaded “boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-again” dynamic).
I must applaud how this is the “Scream” of romantic comedies. It looks at previous exploits into the genre and actually manages to mock and judge its predecessors without ironically falling into the same tired clichés. As I said, it can’t stop from being what it is, a happy-ending romance story, but I can’t think of how one can escape that cliché. Honestly, that’s just what the genre is: a giant and tired cliché. But “Friends” knows how to at least give us such a great time that we can forget about that for its duration. It also tries its hardest to throw us off with the beats on where each of those segments are supposed to go. That helps, I guess.
The amount of witty banter and the level of realistic growth in the relationships positively sets “Friends with Benefits” apart from the babble. While a bit more crude and gratuitous than necessary, its sharp observations, genuine humor, and scenes seemingly written with the same frenetic realism of Aaron Sorkin make the film stand with prides of the genre like “When Harry Met Sally.”
Ultimately, I smile when I think back at the humor and the characters and the earnest genuineness of “Friends with Benefits.” It made me laugh, it got me having a surprisingly good time, and I can’t think of another romantic comedy I can say the same for since “The Wedding Singer.” Which came out in 1998. That’s saying something.