Friends With Benefits

Friends With Benefits

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Having won rave reviews with teen Scarlet Letter satire Easy A, director Will Gluck shifts his focus onto twentysomethings to dissect the sexual neuroses that see pretty young things diving headfirst into casual sex while avoiding emotional attachment at all costs. Justin Timberlake continues his successful transition from pop pin-up to serious actor while Mila Kunis's reputation won't be done any harm by this above-average rom-com. It's the sort of film that couples should enjoy equally; there's serious eye candy whatever your preference, and the film's energy and good humour is infectious.

Dylan is an LA art director who's doing pretty well for himself and by himself, until headstrong headhunter Jamie coaxes him to New York for a prestigious position at GQ magazine. Dylan is reluctant to leave what he knows, but the effervescent Jamie's unconventional tour of her hometown wins him over to the East Coast lifestyle. Having just endured frustrating split-ups, they're glad to find their friendship blossoming, but it's not long before the prospect of getting physical rears its head. Embarking on a no strings attached affair, the two find keeping their feelings separate from their urges harder than it first appears.

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The opening scene cleverly toys with the audience's expectations by flitting between the participants of a date night gone disastrously wrong. Gluck's previous leading lady Emma Stone appears as if to pass the baton for sassy next-gen chick-flick icon to the delectable Kunis, while Saturday Night Live breakout Andy Samberg's appearance hints at the script's quirky comedic edge. Hyperactive cutting shows how both our leads react in similar ways to an awkward situation we'll all recognise, nicely foreshadowing their eventual meeting of minds. Later, Jamie's 'alternative' introduction to NYC culminates in a flashmob dance routine that's pleasurably cutesy in a cringe-inducing way. It all adds up to an instantly engaging opening; watch out too for a random, self-deprecating cameo from pro-snowboard legend Shaun White that suggests he has real comedy chops and perhaps even potential as a proper actor.

The script toys with technology, work politics and bodily functions in frank and funny fashion, the whip-smart dialogue giving Kunis and Timberlake ample opportunity to showcase their impeccable timing and effortless appeal. However, for all the self-aware banter and ironic asides that attempt to distract the audience from genre conventions as well as expose them for how lazy they are, the romance becomes seriously formulaic towards the end. The inevitable conflict is all too predictable, and the climactic scenes of Timberlake trying to win Kunis back are sunk by woefully clunky dialogue. Ideally, romantic chick-flicks should end on memorable one-liners, just as overblown action movies do; 'Ditto' sealed the deal for Ghost, and even if it made you want to vomit in your popcorn, 'You had me at hello' was icing on Jerry Maguire's cake. Gluck over-eggs it here, with Timberlake prattling on unnecessarily when all the audience wants is to see him kiss the damn girl.

An unexpected second-half subplot also threatens to derail the film's sunny, funny vibe, although Gluck deserves credit for handling a difficult subject with surprising sincerity and sensitivity. Jenna Elfman and the always impressive Richard Jenkins lend sterling support here, but despite being undeniably emotional, these scenes aren't exactly what this film's crowd will be queuing up for. And there's nowhere near enough Woody Harrelson! It's tragic that his genius casting as a gay sports editor - it makes hilarious sense when you think about it - amounts to nothing more than a few lewd proposals that are uncomfortably batted off by characters who've seemingly never come across a homosexual man before. At least he doesn't feel the need to mince it up, refreshingly being filthily forthright and forward without resorting to cliched camp affectation.

Ultimately, Gluck's latest is a definite step ahead of its genre trappings. Despite our leads both being sickeningly hot, ridiculously successful and spouting the sort of too-cool-for-school dialogue that no real person could ever aspire to emulating - it would sound stupid to try - they're a massively likable coupling, striking enough real sparks sexually and verbally to keep us involved in their dilemma. The film is surprisingly honest and true about a string of hang-ups, delusions and insecurities we all share, and for the most part the script brings the laughs as well as the smarts. As in Easy A, Gluck perhaps bites off more than he can chew, but Friends With Benefits is a precocious delight that should effortlessly please the boys as well as their target audience girlfriends.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2011
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Two ambitious young people find that sleeping together with no emotional complications is trickier than they anticipated.
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Director: Will Gluck

Writer: Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, Harley Peyton

Starring: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Andy Samberg,

Year: 2011

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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