All right, it’s official: I’ll be allowing myself to actually look forward to Will Gluck’s next film. After last year’s Easy A, and now Friends with Benefits, Gluck has crossed over into the realm—and a very small realm it is—of directors whose name on a romantic comedy doesn’t make me long for a nice torture-porn offering. It’s not quite as good as Easy A—or at least I don’t think so this close to seeing it—but Friends with Benefits also isn’t that far off, and it most certainly evidences the same sensibility and stylishness.
Yes, in terms of concept it’s very like No Strings Attached. In fact, it seems that No Strings Attached was titled Friends with Benefits at one point during its creation. But this is one of those instances where similar projects just happen to have been in the works at the same time. It hardly matters in any case, because this new film is such a solid piece of work that any comparison is going to be in its favor.
The premise is simple: Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) meet when she gets him to come to New York as a candidate for the editorship of GQ. When he takes the job and moves to Manhattan, they become friends, mostly because he doesn’t know anyone. It’s only a short step from there to hitting upon the idea that they should become sexually—but not romantically—involved. Now, while it’s perfectly possible that such an arrangement might work out, we know full well it’s not going to here because, otherwise, there’s no movie. The film knows you know this, playing with the anticipation to provide a large part of its charm and appeal.
While it’s usually a good idea to detect a whiff of rodentia when the word post-modern is evoked, here it’s another matter. Friends with Benefits is a movie that manages to have its cake and eat it, too. It toys with the conventions of its genre while simultaneously adhering to them—subverting them at just the right moment and then knowingly using them again when it suits the story. It’s a very careful balancing act—one that I kept expecting to see falter, and one I was delighted to find never did, even though it comes perilously close by not figuring a way around the requisite gloomy penultimate reel. The film clues you in that it’s cleverer than the average romantic comedy right from the start with breathlessly intercut opening scenes. It’s the kind of cinematic sleight of hand that would have made Preston Sturges smile. All I’ll say is that the opening appears to be one thing, but ends up being something else altogether.
This is that rarest of comedies—as was Easy A—where the filmmaking itself is as clever and funny as the script and the performances. In this case, that’s even more of an accomplishment, because both script and performers are very good. Nice touches abound in the film—things that set it just a little bit apart. For instance, you know that gay friend that the heroine is supposed to have? Well, here it’s the hero with the gay friend. Better yet, the gay friend here is equally unusual in that he’s the sports editor for GQ, played by a cast-against-type Woody Harrelson.
The entire cast is as close to perfect as you’re likely to get. Timberlake and Kunis could scarcely be better, nicely working both with and against the conventions of the genre (sometimes in the same scene). Emma Stone has a terrific scene as Timberlake’s girlfriend who dumps him because he’s late for a John Mayer concert (“John Mayer is the Sheryl Crowe of our generation!”). Patricia Clarkson—another holdover from Easy A—has a much larger role as Mila Kunis’s irresponsible, man-crazy mother, who can’t quite remember who or what Kunis’ father was, but seems pretty sure he was something “exotic.” And while it can be complained that Richard Jenkins as Timberlake’s Alzheimer-afflicted father has moments of lucidity at just the right points to suit the story, Jenkins is so good that it’s hard to mind. That pretty much describes the whole film. Rated R for sexual content and language.