At the start of Friends With Benefits, Mila Kunis’s character unleashes a tirade while walking through New York: “We’ve got to stop buying into the Hollywood cliché of true love!”
What about the Hollywood cliché of friends who have casual sex?
After Jamie (Kunis) and Dylan (Justin Timberlake) are dumped by their respective partners, they launch into a commitment-free affair, promising each other: “No emotion. Just sex.”
If this sounds like familiar film territory, it’s because Kunis’s Black Swan co-star, Natalie Portman, faced a similar situation earlier this year with No Strings Attached. Rated 14A for language and a glimpse of Ashton Kutcher’s posterior assets, it detailed the pitfalls of casual coitus.
Friends With Benefits, rated R for language and a glimpse of both Timberlake’s and Kunis’s goods, has the same message; but it delivers it with the quick wit and self-awareness of director, co-producer and co-writer Will Gluck’s previous hit, Easy A.
Considering these two movies, a Gluck heroine is smart, sassy and beautiful but yearns to be swept away in a horse-drawn carriage or on a lawn mower with a Patrick Dempsey-type. Luckily, Gluck heroes are happy to oblige.
Dylan, like his hometown of Los Angeles, is clean-cut and laid-back. He spends the first half of the movie looking flummoxed, swept up in Jamie’s fast-talking, saucy tide. Meanwhile, Jamie is like New York, brash and aggressive. They’re both cool and charming — the kind of people you want to be friends with, date, or imagine yourself to be, if you had an eight pack or cellulite-proof thighs.
They meet when Jamie, who is a headhunter, recruits Dylan to work as the artistic director of GQ Mmgazine in New York. They soon become, er, Gluck buddies, in one of the most fun, awkward sex scenes in recent cinema history. They strip down and inspect each other’s hard bodies with the formality and nonchalance of construction workers being handed tools for a job. “I can work with that,” they both say.
What follows is a montage of erotic misadventures including Jamie grabbing Dylan’s tongue and telling him that his previous partners either lied to him about his performance or their privates were “made out of burlap.”
Gluck’s comic timing — just when things are too happy or too serious, someone gets a proverbial pie in the face — and the fine deliveries by the film’s actors keep the jokes fresh. (For example, when Woody Harrelson’s gay character puns on the word “ferry,” it’s not the quip that makes it good, it’s how he finishes it with, “Bam!” and the flick of his hand as if he’s just plucked the perfect note on his guitar.
His and other memorable supporting roles — Patricia Clarkson as a version of her cool mom-self from Easy A just with added booze and promiscuity and Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father — also elevate the film.
But back to the casual sex, of which there is much of but not explicit enough to merit the movie’s racy rating; at first, Jamie and Dylan are able to keep their whoopee loosey-goosey; but this is a movie after all, and in movies, hot friends who have sex fall in love.
The third act takes a turn for the more serious, morphing a little into a heavier James Brooks-type drama; what is surprising is that Timberlake who at 30 still looks like a college frat boy, turns in a believable performance of a thoughtful, struggling young man.
While the film takes jabs at the Hollywood fairy tale — Dylan hits on a woman readingThe Notebook while Jamie, passing a poster for the film, The Ugly Truth, calls Katherine Heigl “a liar” — Gluck adheres to the formula. It may be predictable rom-com fluff; but so long as it’s fun — and funny — I’m prepared to be lied to.
This review was originally published in the National Post July 22 2011.