By Don Simpson | July 22, 2011
Director: Will Gluck
Writer: Will Gluck
Starring: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Richard Jenkins, Nolan Gould, Emma Stone, Andy Samberg
As if revenge for losing the Swan Queen character to Natalie Portman’s Nina in Black Swan, Mila Kunis one-ups Portman’s role as Emma in No Strings Attached with her portrayal as Jamie in Friends with Benefits. At least that is the word around Tinseltown. Though I like Portman, I have avoided No Strings Attached like a STD because I do not want to watch her makin’ whoopee with co-star Ashton Kutcher. (Maybe it is unbridled jealousy, but I do not find them to be a likely pair.) Kunis and co-star Justin Timberlake, however, seem like they would be a more likely (and likable pair), and I guess they are…
Jamie (Kunis), a Manhattan headhunter, places Dylan (Timberlake) in a high-profile position as Art Director for GQ magazine. While cozily watching Jamie’s favorite movie — a film-within-a-film rom-com with a satirically amped-up cheese factor — like BFFs, the emotionally psychotic Jamie and the emotionally vacant Dylan decide that sex can be just like…um…tennis? Tennis is a recreational sport enjoyed among friends who cordially shake hands at the end of the match and then go their separate ways; surely sex among two impeccably beautiful Hollywood stars can be enjoyed as a recreational sport as well. Jamie and Dylan give it a go and the experiment goes well at first. The pair are able to communicate their sexual likes and dislikes in bed and fulfill each other’s desires to the rhythm of Dylan’s repeated sneezes. (Note: Dylan sneezes whenever he ejaculates.)
Eventually, though, all of their repressed emotional baggage bubbles to the surface, thus disproving their theory that friends who sneeze together can remain just tennis buddies. If Jamie and Dylan cannot pull off this experiment, where does that leave the rest of us horny Americans? Well, it looks like heterosexual marriage truly is our only road to eternal salvation. Thank God! And thank you, Jamie and Dylan, for taking one for the team so that no other God-fearing Americans will need to go down the dastardly rabbit hole of emotionless sex. Two films in one calendar year (three if you include November 2010’s Love and Other Drugs with Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway) about loveless fuck buddies must mean something about our modern society, or at least there will be plenty of bible-thumpers who will say so. Of course if the bible-thumpers would just sit down and watch Friends with Benefits, they would realize that Friends with Benefits redeems itself in God’s eyes (well, at least a God who is not opposed to premarital sex) by the closing credits.
Despite the manic meta-ness of its first half, the second half of Friends with Benefits shamelessly relies on all of the very same rom-com genre tropes that the film had just hysterically satirized. As with Easy A, writer-director Will Gluck’s previous film, the wink-wink-nudge-nudge Gen-X quotation marks of Friends with Benefits are exclaimed ad nauseum. Gluck’s hyperactive propensity for pop culture references (flashmobs, iPads, T-mobile, Harry Potter, John Mayer, Third Eye Blind, Criss Cross, etc.) would be much funnier if he could utilize them with more restraint. Instead he leaves the valve wide open, thus drowning the audience in what could have been some really funny stuff. Besides, by eventually embracing all the clichés that Friends with Benefits so manically attempts to deconstruct, Gluck is essentially saying that all of the jokes from the first half of the film were for naught.
Friends with Benefits also seems intent on making excuses for Jamie and Dylan’s lack of sexual morality. One look at Jamie’s boozy and slutty single mother (Patricia Clarkson) we know that Jamie inherited her sexual prowess (yet no physical traits) from this woman; and in a continuance of the cinematic device of characters being defined by the films they watch, Jamie’s mother watches Paul Mazursky’s Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. The reckless promiscuity of Jamie’s mother has also forever blurred Jamie’s ethnic identity — she has no idea who her father is, therefore Jamie does not know her own ethnic background.
Dylan’s father (Richard Jenkins) is mentally wasting away due to Alzheimer’s (though he does enjoy some suddenly lucid flourishes during which he is able to deliver crucial motivational monologues to Dylan) and Dylan feels guilty for leaving his father in the sole care of his sister (Jenna Elfman) in Los Angeles. Dylan’s estranged mother divorced his father ten years ago, abandoning their family in a time of need, resulting in abandonment and commitment issues for Dylan.
Dylan is also riddled by fears of being presumed gay. His ex-girlfriend (Emma Stone) thinks he likes a finger up his ass during sex; Dylan feels “emasculated” when Jamie is on top of him in bed; and, a sure-fire sign of gayness (at least according to Friends with Benefits), Dylan likes Harry Potter. Dylan’s fears are then magnified tenfold when his gay co-worker (Woody Harrelson) suggests that they go “trolling for cock” together. The only good that could possibly come out of all of the gay jokes is if you turn this into a drinking game, slurping one down every time the word “gay” is used in relation to Dylan’s sexuality.