Friends With Benefits (Screen Gems) contains a movie-within-a-movie that I wish were real: a mega-sappy romantic comedy in which Jason Segel and Rashida Jones fall in love against an obviously fake back-lot New York. (Grand Central Station is L.A.’s train station in disguise; Central Park is lined with palm trees.) The two exchange meaningless phrases that are nonetheless recognizable as rom-com dialogue, like Segel’s solemn parting words to his beloved: “I guess New York is all out of blueberries.”
If Friends with Benefits dared to be as smart and silly as that fake movie is, it might really have something going on. This lead couple, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, bring a great asset to the table: They’re legitimately sexy, in that they both seem like people one would want to have sex with and people who enjoy having sex. For all I know, Timberlake and Kunis are uptight eunuchs in real life, but they’re visibly at ease in their perfect young bodies: They’re fine, they know they’re fine, and they’re fine with being fine.
Friends with Benefits also does well in casting this pair as similarly driven young professionals. Dylan (Timberlake) is a star-blogger-turned-art-director at GQ (a career trajectory that doesn’t make much sense, but never mind). Jamie (Kunis) is the corporate headhunter who convinces him to move from L.A. to New York for the job. (A pre-credit sequence shows them both breaking up with their lame previous partners.) You can see what Dylan and Jamie, two Type-A extroverts with troubled family histories and a shared taste for flash-mob dance routines, see in each other. It’s a shame that the movie, directed by Will Gluck ( Easy A), wastes this pair’s promising chemistry on such standard-issue rom-com material.
My colleague Juliet Lapidos has written about the can-friends-have-sex-and-stay-friends rom-com subgenre; I’d only add that, unlike Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in the identically themed No Strings Attached, Kunis and Timberlake seem plausible as hard-boiled casual-hookup types. Both are given back stories to justify their resistance to long-term involvements: Her mother (Patricia Clarkson) is an irresponsible, promiscuous flake (but, thanks to Clarkson, kind of good company). His mother abandoned the family 10 years ago, and his father (the ever-incredible Richard Jenkins) is now in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. A couple of late scenes in which Jenkins confides in his son about his imminent decline break through the prevailing glib tone.
Dylan and Jamie have established strict rules to keep the banter light as they’re having softcore but unusually raunchy sex in their astronomically large New York apartments. (Only Woody Allen’s characters could one-up these two in a real estate battle.) But one day as they’re getting down at Dylan’s childhood home on a trip to L.A., that lovin’ feelin’ comes creeping in … *
Maybe it ought to be enough that Jamie and Dylan have a believable spark between them, and that he’s funny rapping along to an old Kriss Kross record, and that her green eyes and olive skin could win an Oscar for Best Complexion. But this movie can’t seem to stop foundering into dumb-cliché territory. Woody Harrelson, as a gay colleague of Dylan’s who’s constantly referencing his own gayness, is beyond embarrassing, and it’s not poor Woody’s fault; he has to crack a phallic joke about an elephant that no one should ever be compelled to make. There’s also a scene in which Jamie runs around barefoot on a moving baggage carousel without any of the onlookers objecting; this bit of business is presumably meant to make Jamie seem madcap, but she just comes off as mentally unstable.
The fact that there are two key scenes involving the joy every New Yorker apparently feels at the sight of a dancing flash mob pretty much puts the question to bed: Friends With Benefits is a dumb, by-the-numbers romantic comedy. Yet I kept finding small things to enjoy in it, mainly because of the two hard-to-hate leads. Timberlake’s comic charisma has been well established in multiple movies and SNL hosting spots; he’s now ready for material more sophisticated than this or the recent, abysmal Bad Teacher. And Kunis, in every role she’s played so far— Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Date Night, Black Swan—has a captivating air of self-possession and a mischievous spark. She seems like someone who’d be up for anything not just in bed but in life. Can’t someone dream up a better romantic comedy for these two to star in? Is New York really all out of blueberries?
Correction, July 26, 2011: The article originally and incorrectly stated that the childhood home where the lovin’ feelin’ came creeping in belonged to Jamie. In fact, it belonged to Dylan.(Return to corrected sentence.)