Directed by: Will Gluck
Premise: Two friends (Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) attempt to engage in a sexual relationship without the emotional commitment.
What Works: Friends with Benefits is a very watchable romantic comedy. The script is very witty and the film is edited very well. The opening is especially impressive, setting up characters and themes right away and getting into the story. For anyone who has suffered through romantic comedies like those starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, this is far and away a better film. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis play the leads and although both actors are emblematic of Hollywood beauty there is a human vulnerability to them that gives the relationship some reality and makes the audience want to see them get together. Kunis is particularly good at subtle shifts within scenes to both comic and dramatic effect and both actors are satisfying to watch in a film that manages to be very funny. Following in the footsteps of recent comedy trends, a lot of that humor is crude but in the context of Friends with Benefits that crudeness is a part of the film’s claim to authenticity. For a mainstream Hollywood film, the actors do go considerably farther in explicitness than other romantic comedies and Friends with Benefits is an attempt by Hollywood to catch up to an audience that is already far ahead in their understanding of new sexual mores.
What Doesn’t: The problem with Friends with Benefits is that it does not go far enough. The central thesis of the story is that people have unrealistic expectations about relationships because those expectations have been created by romantic comedies. But a lot of television programs like Skins, Jersey Shore, and The Real L Word indicate the audience is already well past When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman. So Friends with Benefits is trafficking in a vocabulary that is already archaic. Secondly, the film uses a self-reflexive style to pronounce its liberation from the romantic comedy genre by consciously ridiculing the clichés of these films while simultaneously fulfilling them. Unfortunately, the film falls short of its transgressive goal. The filmmakers are clearly aware of their genre but they never do anything with that self-awareness. Horror pictures Scream and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon similarly played on the conventions of the slasher genre while fulfilling them, but those films were successful because they used the expectations to set up reversals that manifested themselves as scares and jokes and in the end those films provided some insight into the meaning of the genre. Friends with Benefits consciously walks through romantic comedy tropes but after acknowledging the clichés, it just moves onto the next one. This film does not provide any new insight into its genre or the topic that it is trying to explore, namely the role of sex in relationships. In the end, this is a routine romantic comedy that validates all the traditional values about sex and relationships that it claims to ridicule or reject.
Bottom Line: Friends with Benefits is a standard romantic comedy, just a little bit naughtier and raunchier. As romantic comedies go, it is far more entertaining than a lot of them and the film’s wit and its two lead actors make it an enjoyable viewing.
Episode: #350 (July 31, 2011)