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Friends with Benefits

July 24, 2011
Friends With Benefits

A girl and a guy come together; neither one wants a relationship but they’re both attracted to each other, so they decide to hook up anyway but as a purely physical thing. It’s such a terribly clichéd premise that we can see the general contours of how it’s going to play out from start to finish before the trailer’s even done, and we end up with some awful, self-indulgent rom-com like No Strings Attached. So how does Friends with Benefits take the exact same premise and end up producing such a great movie? There are many reasons, but two words stand out among them: “Will Gluck”.

Jamie (Mila Kunis) is a New York City kind of girl working as a headhunter. She snares Dylan (Justin Timberlake) from running a weblog startup in Los Angeles to be the art director for _GQ_. Both of them are coming off of bad dating experiences — hers a cameo by Timberlake’s sometime-collaborator Andy Samberg and his a cameo by Emma Stone, who starred in Gluck’s last film, Easy A. Anyway, the upshot is that they hit it off as friends, but they’re both gun-shy about relationships. And yet they don’t lie to themselves and say they don’t want any, which is the first place this film raises itself above the admittedly low bar set by No Strings Attached.

Now, I’m not going to claim that Friends With Benefits is completely unproblematic. It definitely focuses more on Dylan’s need to change and grow than on Jamie’s; we see more interaction with Dylan’s sister (Jenna Elfman), his father (Richard Jenkins), and his incredibly gay friend from work (Woody Harrelson) than we do of Jamie’s mother (Patricia Clarkson, another Easy A alumna). But Gluck at least recognizes how ridiculous the premise is and lampshades it with a brilliant metacinematic running gag about a bad romantic comedy starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones.

And that’s really where the movie wins: we all know exactly where we’re going, so we may as well actually have fun getting there, and step one is the acting. Ashton Kutcher simply cannot act to save his life, so Timberlake didn’t exactly have his work cut out for him. Still, he embraces his inner dork and looks like he’s having fun with it. Kunis may not be the Serious Actress that Natalie Portman is, but in comedies or action movies — The Book of Eli, anyone? — she beats Portman hands-down. And the chemistry that these two have together is just wonderful. Their dynamic stems from a different source, but her manic east-coast drive against his laconic west-coast cool remind me of Tracy and Hepburn.

And it goes beyond just them. The whole supporting cast is great as they slide effortlessly into place when they’re needed. Jenkins, in particular, handles Dylan’s father’s advancing dementia delicately, never being cruel with it, but also never letting it overwhelm and drag down the scene. And Clarkson has clearly mastered this particular mother character.

But it’s Gluck’s direction — and his work on helping to rewrite the script — that brings it all together. He has some wonderful banter on the page, and he knows just how to get the cast to bring it to life. He knows the formulas, he knows we know the formulas, and he knows just when to follow and when to break them in order to help us enjoy them all the more.

Worth It: yes
Bechdel Test: it’s skating on thin ice, but I’m going to give it a technical pass because even though Jamie’s conversation with her mother was superficially about her father and Dylan, it was really about their relationship. In a way it’s a converse to the tough call Easy A presented.

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