11 September 2011

Movie Review: Friends with Benefits


C-

Friends with Benefits
2011, 109mins, 15
Director: Will Gluck
Writer (s): Will Gluck, David A. Newman, Keith Merryman, Harley Peyton
Cast includes: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman, Emma Stone, Patricia Clarkson
UK Release Date: 9th September 2011

When one of a comedy’s biggest laughs comes from an obvious reference to its director’s previous film, it’s probably safe to say things haven’t gone exactly to plan. In the opening few minutes of “Friends with Benefits” we are gifted a brief callback to Will Gluck’s last feature, more specifically 2010’s refreshing “Easy A”. On the surface “Friends with Benefits” does have several things in common with Gluck’s well regarded sophomore venture. Firstly the best performance clearly comes from the female lead, in “Easy A” that was the delightful Emma Stone (who incidentally cameos in “Friends with Benefits”); here it’s the equally illuminating Mila Kunis. Secondly the movie looks sharper than your average Hollywood product. During “Easy A” Gluck demonstrated inventive flourishes to showcase the spread of gossip in a school environment; in “Friends with Benefits” he uses similar touches to capture the hubbub and craziness of New York. Thirdly both films are overstuffed and excessively long. However thanks to a spicy and amusing script, the editorial problems with “Easy A” were forgivable. “Friends with Benefits” on the other hand is a very different story. The screenplay is a disappointingly witless and static endeavour, lacking both the charm and insight which allowed “Easy A” to so readily impress. Instead “Friends with Benefits” is plagued by an infuriating tone of superiority; the picture’s soft mocking of rom-com clich├ęs somehow making it appear cleverer than it actually is.

Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is brought to New York by headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis), the latter hoping the LA based art director can fill a vital position at GQ. Dylan gets the job, but soon finds life lonesome in NYC, turning to Jamie for friendship in his strange new home. The pair click, a plutonic bond forming with comfortable ease, but it isn’t long before Jamie and Dylan start to view each other in sexual terms. Both have endured a string of shoddy relationships, and are thusly determined to keep their arrangement purely physical, using each other exclusively for the purposes of friendly banter and carnal pleasure. Predictably however, emotions start entering into the equation, bringing an unwelcome yet unavoidable sense of intimacy to the pair’s romping.

“Friends with Benefits” has its heart in the right place, which I suppose is something. The picture is neither vile nor offensive in execution (unlike some other recent bawdy rom-coms), instead aiming to represent its protagonists’ relationship in a natural and engaging light. However the largely laugh free screenplay and trite storytelling undermine such ambitions, leaving “Friends with Benefits” as little more than an overwrought bore. Kunis and Timberlake connect adequately (the former actually applying an excellent genre performance), but there’s no overcoming such a blandly derivative script. The film goes exactly where you expect, and takes an age to do it. At 109 minutes “Friends with Benefits” is stretched far beyond reason, the filmmakers finding bizarre editorial detours to enable the film’s bloated runtime.

Despite his disappointing refusal to enforce any form of obvious cutting, Gluck does at least frame “Friends with Benefits” professionally. The picture has a slick and attractive palette, the filmmaker exploiting both his photogenic stars and bustling locations to pleasant effect. Jamie and Dylan’s bedroom dalliances are also nicely presented, Gluck finding an otherwise absent aura of energy and comedic rhythm during the sex scenes. Kunis and Timberlake aren’t afraid to get stuck in, embracing both the picture’s naughtiness and underlying sweetness. Leaving these more physical set-pieces aside, “Friends with Benefits” is actually an incredibly cumbersome comedy, lacking in spark or innovative comedic intuition. For example the film features Woody Harrelson (whom I’m usually fond of) hamming it up as a homosexual caricature. Harrelson in fairness attacks the part with gusto, but the very idea of his role is simply too moldy and unadventurous to work. It’s this sort of misstep that reoccurs again and again in “Friends with Benefits”, robbing the picture of respectability in the humour department.

“Friends with Benefits” adopts a very snarky attitude when it comes to referencing its own genre, poking fun at numerous rom-com conventions which are simply beyond the realms of expectation in the real world. At the start this isn’t much of a problem (indeed it even allows for a dig at 2009’s rancid “The Ugly Truth”) but as the movie meanders on, it becomes a point of frustration. The observations noted aren’t particularly erudite to begin with, but watching “Friends with Benefits” adopt such a self-righteous personality before devolving into exactly the sort of mush it seeks to lampoon is pretty annoying. The movie’s lack of imagination or kick renders it just as sterile as the mounds of drivel it targets, leaving it stranded in a swamp of unwelcome hypocrisy. I welcome the attempt, but next time the filmmakers had better pay more attention to the calibre of their own art before they start degrading somebody else’s.

Mila Kunis is fabulous. The cinematography is better than average. It’s not overrun by sickening chauvinism or a devotion to piggish ideals (basically it’s not “The Ugly Truth”). However “Friends with Benefits” is infected by limp gags, formulaic plotting, poor pacing and a nasty strain of piety. You could definitely do worse, but you could also just revisit “Easy A”. Better luck next time Mr. Gluck.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

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