Friends With Benefits

Thirteen years ago, Pixar announced that the followup to their first full length feature would be A Bugs Life.  In a wild attempt to both establish their new computer animation devision and steal some of Pixar’s thunder, Dreamworks Animation rushed a movie called Antz into production.  Although they never said it, their motivation was clear.  Dreamworks was hoping the average filmgoer would confuse the two movies and they might be able to knock Pixar off of their high horse.  Needless to say, Antz failed miserably and A Bugs Life went on to be a beloved family film that remains as relevant today as it was then.  The reason I bring this up is that a very similar thing has happened this year.  Back in January, a movie called No String Attached was released.  Directed by Ivan Reitman, this Natalie Portman/Ashton Kutcher vehicle was the story of two friends who decided to pursue a purely sexual relationship while remaining good buddies.  Critically panned and not a huge commercial success, No Strings Attached is now followed by a similarly themed comedy, Friends With Benefits.

Going into this movie, it’s very easy to see why people are making the comparison.  Friends With Benefits is the story of Dylan (Justin Timberlake), a talented graphic designer, and Jamie (Mila Kunis), a corporate headhunter, who are best friends.  Both are frustrated with their inability to successfully navigate the choppy waters of the dating world and decide to have have sex with each other to quell their more carnal urges.  What follows is the relatively predictable formula of two people who’s sexual relationship turns to love.  So how does Friends With Benefits compare to its predecessor, No Strings Attached?  Surprisingly well, actually, mostly due to two factors.

The first asset of Friends With Benefits is the cast.  Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis have enough dramatic skill and the clear comedic chops to transcend a plot we have all seen before.  The chemistry between them is undeniable and both bring a lot to the table.  Kunis is explosive as a tough New York girl who is vulgar and sassy while Timberlake brings a wry charm to the part of the introverted and laid back Los Angeles native.  But as funny as they both are, they also convey a clear vulnerability that helps to bring a genuine reality to the characters.  At all times, their emotional baggage helps make their true feelings clear to the audience but invisible to each other.

Joining them is a great supporting cast including Woody Harrelson as a flamboyantly awesome homosexual sports editor, Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s spacey sexed-up mother, Jenna Elfman as Dylan’s single-mother sister and Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s father, who is struggling with Alzheimer’s.  All of them are great, especially Patrcia Clarkson who manages to make Lorna both a fun character and a frightening cautionary tale and Jenkin’s who brings a surprising amount of depth and heart to the part considering his minimal amount of screen time.  The film also features a number of inspired cameos from the likes of Shaun White who, playing himself, is all kindness on the surface but has a serious dark streak when dealing with Dylan and the team up of Jason Segal and Rashida Jones as the characters in the cheesy romantic comedy film that inspires Dylan and Jamie’s hatred of rom-com cliche.

The second thing this film had going for it comes in the form of writer/director Will Gluck.  Gluck has recently seen a lot of success with low-budget hits like cheerleader comedy Fired Up and last year’s Easy A.  In the past, Gluck has proven his ability to deliver a funny story with heart, but Friends With Benefits demonstrates for the first time that maybe Gluck is a name we should start taking seriously.  The script crackles with wit, hilarity and a shocking amount of heart.  Sure, you get dick jokes and off the cuff silliness, but there are also a fair amount of genuinely sweet and dramatic moments that help elevate this film beyond the average romantic comedy fare.  The scene between Timberlake and Jenkins in an airport restaurant demonstrated that Gluck has the ability to bring some real emotional depth to a film that, on the surface, seems like the same cliched movie that came out in January.  I would go as far as to say that Gluck is perfectly placed to fill the void left when Judd Apatow lost sight of what made his movies so great.  Gluck is funny, smart and lightning quick, taking the time to let the emotional scenes resonate but keeping them film as a whole moving at a good clip.

It’s almost sad that most people are referring to this film as “No Strings Attached 2,” because Friends With Benefits is superior in every way.  Sure, the ending will provide little surprise to even the most junior members of the movie-going audience, but its how they get there that will surprise you.  Don’t make the same mistake that so many are.  With an enjoyable cast, a smart script and enough genuine laughs to keep you entertained, Friends With Benefits is the clear winner in the battle for friends-turned-lovers supremacy and well worth your time.

RATING:  8.5/10

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~ by Andrew Craig on August 3, 2011.

4 Responses to “Friends With Benefits”

  1. The comparison of Will Gluck to “Classic Apatow” is exactly what I was thinking.

  2. Its hard not to make the comparison. He has an incredible ability to keep the funny coming so frequently that when an emotional moment comes, it catches you off guard and has a lot of impact. I just hope he doesn’t lose his mojo the way Apatow did.

  3. Good review! This is exactly the type of post that should be shared around the internet. Shame on the Yahoo for not positioning this post higher!

  4. GREAT REVIEW! I totally agree with pretty much all you said in your article, especially at the middle of your article. Thank you, this info is very valuable as always. Keep up the good work! You’ve got +1 more reader of your great blog:) Isabella S.

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