Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: "Friends with Benefits"

I admitted earlier that my only desire to see Friends with Benefits sat with Emma Stone's brief cameo appearance. It is a brief appearance, but the real star of the film is Mila Kunis. She showed great professional maturity opposite Natalie Portman's Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan and that growth is evident here. Kunis and co-star Justin Timberlake do have chemistry, but the film would have had greater depth if she had had a co-star with greater range of emotion. It is easy to picture Justin Timberlake as a comedic lead, but the film suffers during his emotional struggles. Friends with Benefits does nothing to modernize the romantic comedy, but it is funny and its pacing attempts to cover up its flaws. Director Will Gluck, whose film Easy A (2010) skyrocketed Emma Stone to fame, does a great job managing comedy and romance. There are times when the film suffers, but a talented crop of supporting actors (including Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins and Woody Harrelson) keep the story afloat. Earlier this year, another film tried and failed using the same formula. No Strings Attached had an Oscar-winning star (Portman) and an equally talented supporting cast, but the film was too raunchy and too poorly plotted. I could only manage watching twenty minutes! Friends with Benefits, co-written and directed by Will Gluck, manages to be a romantic comedy without selling out entirely. Mila Kunis proves her star power in this film and I hope she can continue carrying this momentum to stronger and more challenging roles.

The beginning of the film, arguably the weakest and most cliched moment, introduces us to Jamie (Kunis) and Dylan (Timberlake) by juxtaposing their breakups. Jamie, a headhunter living in New York, is too emotionally damaged for her boyfriend (Andy Samberg), while Dylan, a Lost Angeles website art director, is too busy for Kayla (Emma Stone). The two meet when Jamie lures Dylan to New York to interview for artistic director at GQ. Dylan eventually accepts the job and moves to New York where his only friend is Jamie. They have great chemistry and develop a strong friendship. One night they decide to try to have an emotion-free sexual relationship that will not ruin the friendship. It works to a certain extent, but Jamie soon decides she wants to start dating again. Their friendship remains mostly intact, but after being ditched by her mother (Patricia Clarkson) Jamie accepts Dylan's offer to visit his family in California for July 4th. Dylan's father (Jenkins), sister (Jenna Elfman, whose appearance seems to age Timberlake's character) and nephew (Modern Family's Nolan Gould) can all see that Jamie and Dylan are perfect for each other, but Dylan is too eager to remain friends or occasional friends with benefits. Jamie overhears a conversation between Dylan and his sister and flies back to New York alone, leaving their friendship in ruins.

Justin Timberlake's Dylan is not the most empathetic character when he shows his true colours. Timberlake has chemistry with Mila Kunis, but most of this should be attributed to Kunis' skills as an actress. I said above that the film does not entirely sell out, but the ending is a bit of a mess. Will Gluck's puts a small twist on the genre, as he did with Easy A, by satirizing the genre with a film within the film. Jason Segel and Rashida Jones are seen in a film watched by Jamie and Dylan. Their film mocks romantic comedies and almost exists to make the cliches in Friends with Benefits seem less pathetic. One concern is that the film is definitely not timeless. It feels decidedly stuck in today's world and will soon feel obsolete. For two characters with challenging jobs, not a lot of time was spent depicting the stress Dylan would have as artistic director of a major magazine. Comparing it to The Devil Wears Prada, when even an assistant never had time for friends, it is hard to believe that Dylan would have time to be hanging out every night drinking and playing with Jamie. I think it is time for Hollywood to go back and take a look at the credibility of their screenplays. I wondered watching the film if I would have preferred Emma Stone to play lead instead of Mila Kunis, but Kunis definitely knocked that thought out of my head quickly. She is absolutely a reason to see the film. Friends with Benefits has a great number of flaws and thankfully Justin Timberlake is better than he was in Bad Teacher, but it is a fun diversion.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

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