With Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins; Running Time: 109 minutes; Rated R [for sexual content and language]; Written by Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck; Directed by Will Gluck
The romantic comedy has become such a debased form that in a recent interview Mila Kunis even denied that FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS was one. One can sympathize, but she’s wrong. It is not only a romantic comedy, but a very good one. This is a movie that is very smart about why so many recent romantic comedies have gone wrong. It gleefully skewers the clichés while showing off the unexpectedly delightful chemistry between stars Kunis and Justin Timberlake. It isn’t the movie of the year, but it is the surprise of the summer.
At the film’s start we see Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) break up with their currents partners (cameos by Emma Stone and Andy Samberg). Then Dylan is on his way from L.A. to New York where headhunter Jamie has lined up a job interview for him as art director for GQ Magazine. He knows no one in New York, but she’s a bundle of energy and he quickly gets pulled into her orbit.
At this point you can probably plot out the rest of the story, but this film treats the romantic comedy the way the “Scream” movies treat horror films. Not only are their references to real life romantic films – such as the poster for “It Happened One Night” that hangs over her bed – but there’s a running gag about a made-up film that’s is one of her favorites which runs to the very end of the movie.
The premise for the story is that they will just be friends who treat sex the way they would treat playing tennis: fun but that’s it. We know that’s not where it’s going, but director Will Gluck (along with writers Keith Merryman and David A. Newman) have some tricks up their sleeves, including surrounding the two with a strong supporting cast. Woody Harrelson is hilarious as the macho and defiantly gay sports director at the magazine, while Patricia Clarkson is a hoot as Jamie’s sexually liberated mother who keeps changing the story of who her father was. Jenna Elfman and Richard Jenkins add some poignancy as Dylan’s sister and father, both struggling with Dad’s Alzheimer’s.
A witty script and strong supporting cast are the hallmarks of the great romantic comedies and it’s nice to see someone get it. However, it’s all for naught if the two leads don’t have any onscreen chemistry, and Kunis and Timberlake have it in spades. Both of them have been paying their dues as actors and finally get their starring roles here, making the most of it. Again, as in the best of the genre, the two get to play complex characters instead of cloying and annoying one notes.
Note should also be made of director Will Gluck. This is his third feature after “Fired Up!” and “Easy A,” and what all three share is that you might go in expecting an unoriginal retread of a dozen other movies and are instead surprised by something that’s fresh and original. With “Friends With Benefits,” Gluck, as well as stars Kunis and Timberlake, have hit the big time, bringing some energy and sparkle to a film genre that has desperately needed it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.