In Hollywood, Friends Always Have Benefits

The persistent impossibility of cross-sex friendship in the movies.

Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in Friends With Benefits 

A running conceit in the new romantic comedy Friends With Benefits is that Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) think romantic comedies are stupid. Romantic comedies posit the existence of true love—how silly! They portray New York in an unrealistic light, providing a tourist’s version of the city. When Dylan and Jamie decide to try out a relationship with “no emotions … just sex” and swear that “whatever happens, we stay friends,” they convince themselves that they can pull off this trick because they’re real people, not Hollywood figments.

I’m not sure if it’s a joke or an irony that, aside from the heavy cursing and the shots of Timberlake’s bare bottom in fairly graphic sex scenes—you see him clench—Friends With Benefits is every bit as generic as the rom-coms its characters mock. No New Yorker would go from Rockefeller Center to Prince Street for a workday lunch; that’s insanity. And I don’t think I’m giving too much away by stating that Dylan and Jamie eventually do fall in love. The film draws attention to Hollywood clichés, then stumbles right into them.

There’s one cliché so ingrained in pop culture, however, that Friends With Benefits doesn’t even bother to hold it up for scrutiny before succumbing to it: Straight men and women are never “just” friends. Dylan and Jamie don’t seem to notice that going from buddies to fuck buddies is as hackneyed a move as visiting Times Square.

It’s not surprising that Hollywood generally depicts romantic rather than platonic relationships—the former are more exciting and lend themselves to narrative arcs. But, as I’ve said before, the situation is more extreme than that: When movies do portray a cross-sex friendship, they almost always dismiss it, contending, implicitly, that platonic love is impossible. There is virtually no such thing as true male-female friendship in the movies, only friends with benefits, or friends who wish they had benefits, or friends who are about to have benefits.

At this point, some readers are probably thinking—wait a minute, that’s not a movie-truth, that’s a truth-truth. As I discovered when I wrote about my 15-year-and-counting sexless relationship with my best friend, Jeff, many people deny that there is such a thing as platonic love. These people seem largely un-convinceable, but I’ll note that in the course of researching that essay I heard from plenty of Slate readers who claim to have such relationships, and that a 2002 survey conducted by the magazine American Demographics found that more than 1 in 10 adults age 25 to 35 have a best friend—not just a pal or an acquaintance—of the opposite sex.

The classic Hollywood it-can’t-happen thesis is that friendship necessarily bleeds into romance, like in When Harry Met Sally … . As Harry puts it, men and women can never be friends because “the sex part always gets in the way,” and the movie bears this out. A variation on the theme is the frustration narrative, in which one member of the friendship wants a romantic relationship and the other does not. Duckie loves Andie in Pretty in Pink,but Andie loves Blaine. Midge loves Scottie in Vertigo, but Scottie loves the mysterious Madeleine. Very occasionally a movie depicts a true friendship, but it’s usually a sideline to a romance that’s given minimal screen time. In Say Anything Lloyd has not one but three female friends, and there’s no indication that he has feelings for any of them or that they have feelings for him—but the movie’s not about that; it’s about Lloyd’s love for Diane.

The other major exception is relationships between gay men and straight women. These abound, both on TV and in the movies. Take My Best Friend’s Wedding, in which Julianne realizes she’s in love with best-bud Michael on the occasion of his engagement. The relationship between Julianne and Michael was never “just” a friendship, but we get the genuine article in Julianne’s friendship with George—who’s gay. This exception isn’t much of one, though; conceding that sex won’t happen if it’s actually distasteful to one of the participants does nothing to chip away at the received idea that, if it’s not distasteful, it’s inevitable.

Like this spring’s No Strings Attachedand 2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Friends With Benefits updates the When Harry Met Sally … theory. In these films friendship leads inexorably to love, just like it always has, but it’s not sex that gets in the way of friendship so much as love that gets in the way of sex.“We tried to fuck and, instead, we wound up making love,” says Zack in Zack and Miri. “I want my best friend back, because I’m in love with her,” says Dylan, after a fight makes him realize that there was more to the relationship than physicality.

Friends With Benefits seems awfully proud of its edginess. There’s a lot of sex (fun sex, not weepy sex), and lots of talk about sex. But it would be a far, far less conventional movie if, instead of jumping into bed and then falling in love, Dylan and Jamie never got into it at all.

To read a slide-show essay on male-female “friendship” in the movies from the 2010 “Strictly Platonic” Series, click on the player below.