A raunchy sex comedy that starts off sweet but becomes sour all too quickly7/10
I was unsure what to expect going into Friends with Benefits at an advanced screening a few weeks ago. It always seemed a bit too close in plot to No Strings Attached (made extra odd as the female leads Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman had literally just starred together in Black Swan), a film that came out less than six months ago, and while the trailers looked amusing, they seemed to look a little too close to an atypical romantic comedy. But the film actually ended up surprising me. Well, the first half at least.
Jamie (Kunis) is a headhunter in New York City who helps aspiring graphic design artist Dylan (Justin Timberlake) land a prestigious job at GQ. They become good friends, and after a discussion about their relationship failures, decide to start having sex without the relationship schmaltz (hence the titular phrase). But the good times cannot stay uncomplicated for long.
Rather surprisingly, the first half of Friends with Benefits is a ridiculously raunchy sex comedy that is sweeter than it is crude. The dialogue and one-liners drop at a steady pace, and there is plenty of laugh out loud moments. I was genuinely surprised at just how much I was enjoying the film, and how well co-writer/director Will Gluck (who knocked Easy A out of the park last year) helped capture the tropes and stereotypes of romantic comedies, and went entirely against them. The scene that starts the initial sexual antics is a complete dissection of the genre, and seeing the film twist and turn around the familiar plot devices was wonderful to see. It made the film feel hilarious, but also made it feel like it was attempting to do something different at the same time. Adding in a couple of random cameos from notable actors was a bit wacky (which the trailers have ruined slightly), but helped add to the humour.
Except the film comes to a screeching halt just about halfway in when Jamie and Dylan come to the all too obvious realization that they may want something more. The film then becomes drastically more dramatic, a lot less sweet, and significantly more ordinary. Even the laughs suffer, landing less with a snicker and more with a groan. Everything it does to shift itself away from the romantic comedy genre feels wasted because it falls into all of the stereotypes quicker than it poked fun at them. It almost feels like they wanted to desperately feel different, and then decided to just go the safer route as opposed to sticking with its offbeat early tactics. I was really enjoying the film significantly more than I imagined, but suddenly felt bored and totally thrown off by the drastic tonal shift.
While sketch comedy has proved to be one of his strong suits, Timberlake seems to have a lot of trouble carrying the film. We know he has the chops to command the screen and be absolutely magnetic (we have David Fincher and The Social Network to thank for that), but here he seems to be struggling with every other scene. He lands most of his jokes well, does decently with the dramatic bits and has plenty of chemistry with Kunis, but he lacks the spark I think most people will expect him to have in this role. He comes off as just okay, and more amateur than anything else. He would have been better suited in the film as a key supporting player, as opposed to the lead.
Kunis on the other hand, is significantly stronger and proves that her turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall may have been an early suggestion of the formidable comedic talent she may quickly become. Gluck is not able to achieve the same level of breakthrough that he got from Emma Stone in Easy A from Kunis, but she manages to carry the film almost single handedly. Even at the script's weakest moments, she grins and pushes forward, never once appearing to be struggling as much as Timberlake does. I think my only complaint against her is that she spends a good portion of the film completely nude, yet ends up wearing all too obvious pasties under a white shirt in one scene. It seems more like a complaint against a horrendously bad editing and lighting decision than against her, but it was a scene that made her seemingly-realistic character feel a whole lot less believable.
Patricia Clarkson and Richard Jenkins both deliver good performances, but sadly feel like they are just plagiarizing from characters they have played better in the past. Jenna Elfman (who I did not realize was still acting) does a little better in a warm and significantly low-key role as Dylan's sister Annie. But it is Woody Harrelson who steals the entire show as gay sports writer Tommy. He plays the character ridiculously over-the-top, but never feels like he is encroaching on any stereotypes. He makes it his own, and is almost too good in the role. He gets all of the film's best dialogue quips, and runs circles around everyone on screen. In more than one instance, Timberlake looks legitimately shocked at some of the things Harrelson says and gets away with. I think the film could have only benefited from including more of him.
In the end, Friends with Benefits is both surprisingly well done and unsurprisingly ordinary. It tries so hard initially to be the anti- romantic comedy, and then just ends up falling into the same predictable elements that every other film in the genre has already done countless times before. The film is genuinely hilarious when it wants to be however, and this does save it from being a total waste. But it could have been so much more.