There’s usually a simple “something” about a good sex comedy.
Neither particularly sexy nor comical enough to inspire a knee-slap , “Friends with Benefits” plays up the personas of its charismatic stars instead of an all-out exploitation of their tanned and toned flesh.
I imagine if 1959’s “Pillow Talk” were made today, a film similar to “Friends with Benefits” might be the result, which certainly has “something”. But whether it possesses the same sort of playful mirth that made its sex comedy forefathers genre mainstays remains in question.
It’s now acceptable for a film to be as brash as its creators so choose. Maybe that’s why watching Doris Day and Rock Hudson dance around the realistic circus that is sexual courtship is so magical; a cinematic fantasy created behind a veil of censorship, if you will. “Friends with Benefits”, on the other hand, suffers for its overtness.
The premise is simple; Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis), two young professionals brought together through intersecting career paths, make an unusual agreement. The pair agrees to use each other for sex; they can still be friends during the day, however, as long as neither becomes emotionally invested after getting down and dirty at night.
The resolution of the film is crystal clear. Partly because Ms. Kunis’ “Black Swan” costar Natalie Portman starred in practically the same film earlier this year (“No Strings Attached”, which initially shared this film’s title during pre-production), but also for the simple fact that “Friends with Benefits” is a romantic comedy. I mean, you have seen one of those before, right?
Writer-director Will Gluck certainly hopes so. “Friends with Benefits” is peppered with references to all sorts of popular rom-coms from the past, some that will come as immediately obvious while others will take a moment to register. Regardless, the intertextual knowledge and mockery of genre cliches on display functions as comically smug sarcasm at best. But therein also lies the problem; for every trope which is ridiculed by the protagonists another is endorsed along their journey to coupled bliss. You’d think Dylan and Jamie would be able to see what’s in store for them and bypass all the hoopla in their lives that’s so reminiscent of the romantic comedies they despise. We’ll settle for pot meeting kettle in this case, I guess.
Perhaps the satirical material would have functioned better in a more sophisticated film (think Woody Allen), then again perhaps it wouldn’t have worked as well if the films two leads didn’t have the best onscreen chemistry this side of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. Regardless, you came to see its two stars romping around under the sheets, not a Romantic Comedy 101 lesson. There is surprisingly much left to the imagination in that department, however, although the funniest sequence in the entire film does involve a certain oral activity but takes place entirely underneath a blanket. It’s cute, but lacks the delicate balance between comical raunch and satirical punch that “Friends with Benefits” desperately fancies but never quite attains.
That’s not to say the film isn’t enjoyable. It’s a film whose appeal depends largely on the charisma of its stars, not entirely unlike a Doris Day/Rock Hudson venture of years past. If for that reason alone it shows that as a whole, this genre hasn’t evolved much, if at all, since it’s humble beginnings.
Ms. Kunis has been compared to everyone from Lucille Ball to Meg Ryan. She certainly carries the better portion of the film’s comedic weight, possessing a smoky sophistication that sets her more in line with the likes of Marilyn Monroe. Mr. Timberlake is equally enjoyable in his first comedic lead, and the audience coasts through the film thanks to their dazzling chemistry, not caring if we know exactly what’s going to happen.
“They just play a cheesy pop song over the credits to trick you into thinking you had fun watching a terrible movie” Dylan says as Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” plays over the credits of a romantic comedy he’s watching. As that very same song plays over the credits of “Friends with Benefits”, you’ll realize this is a film that truly almost gets it. Simply referencing a problem isn’t enough to free yourself from becoming a victim of the same thing. But for now I’ll take the cheesy pop song and its persuasive effects, but only because “Friends with Benefits” isn’t exactly terrible.