Will Gluck proved last year with the excellent Easy A that he can take a tired genre (High School) and breathe new life into it with a smart script and a decent cast (Emma Stone, Patricia Clarkson). He’s at it again with Friends with Benefits. Many movies have already examined the concept of how relationships are affected once sex is introduced into the equation. These vary in tone from the dark excesses of Last Tango in Paris (1972) to the whimsical fluffiness of When Harry Met Sally (1989). In fact, it’s a topic that’s already been the subject of a major Hollywood movie this year, No Strings Attached, co-starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher.
Friends with Benefits stars gal-of-the-moment Mila Kunis as a corporate headhunter who entices hotshot graphic designer Justin Timberlake to relocate to New York with the prospect of becoming Art Director at GQ magazine. Both leads are clearly attracted to each other but neither is in the mood for commitment, so they embark upon a sex-only relationship in keeping with the movie’s watercooler title.
There’s much to be admired here, particularly in the first half of the movie as Gluck deliberately tilts his lance at the stereotypical conventions of the rom-com genre. The chemistry between the two leads is strong, their comic timing is spot-on and they throw themselves into the bedroom scenes with commendable relish. The banter between the pair is at times more suited to a gross-out movie and that serves to add an extra layer of realism to the action.
Following his successful turns in Bad Teacher and The Social Network, Justin Timberlake consolidates his position as a young actor on the up, but it’s Mila Kunis who proves to be the real star of the show. The role of the sassy, sexy, fast-talking gal is tailor-made for Gluck’s Easy A Muse, Emma Stone, and it’s a measure of Kunis’ talent that she makes the role her own, despite the presence of Stone herself in a supporting role. Equally impressive in support are the likes of Patrica Clarkson (another of Gluck’s Muses), Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson and the great Richard Jenkins.
On the down side, the movie begins to unravel towards the second half as the affection between the two grows and those rom-com tropes that were being skewered suddenly start to rear their ugly heads. The nadir in this regard is the enactment of not one but two romantic flash mob sequences which wouldn’t look out of place in the worst Richard Curtis movie.
Overall, though, Gluck’s movie is a Film with Benefits; one that offers ephemeral satisfaction with no need for commitment.