By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
The comparison’s unavoidable, so let’s deal with it right off.
Yes, the R-rated romantic comedy Friends with Benefits offers the same premise as the recent R-rated romcom No Strings Attached (which was originally titled — yep — Friends with Benefits).
To wit: a contemporary couple attempts to keep their relationship strictly physical, with no romantic involvement.
No Strings Attached starred Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. Friends with Benefits features Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, looking to top their respective career acting highlights in The Social Network and Black Swan.
But No Strings Attached was an also-ran because of a script that ran out of steam after stringing us along, while Friends with Benefits, also problematic but appreciably more entertaining, benefits from some friendly genre tweaking.
So don’t avoid Friends with Benefits just because you’ve seen No Strings Attached. This will not register as stale deja-viewing because the former is at least a shade more authentic and engaging than the latter.
Kunis plays Jamie, a fast-talking executive headhunter who’s drawn to recently hired, up-and-coming art director Dylan, played by Timberlake, whom she recruits to relocate from Los Angeles to New York in order to accept a position at GQ. Their working relationship evolves into a friendship and they’re clearly drawn to each other.
Dylan is described by his most recent and still-angry girlfriend (cameoing Emma Stone), who dumped him, as “emotionally unavailable,” while Jamie is described by her still-angry ex (cameoing Andy Samberg), who dumped her, as “emotionally damaged.”
Semantics aside, both feel scarred and are looking to avoid romantic complications (as if there aren’t other kinds of complications), so they vow to embark upon an intimate relationship with — wait for it!… no strings attached.
Gee, what do you think happens?
You know — of course you know — where this is headed. But narrative predictability is not a big problem here: the fun is in the moderately stimulating, respectably well executed journey to a predestined conclusion.
The chemistry between Timberlake and Kunis, both endearing, is palpable, and they handle the snappy repartee with a crisp, playful touch.
And it’s highly entertaining to watch two charismatic young performers who have such a natural feel for light comedy. These are shining stars just getting started.
Plus, Woody Harrelson as a flamboyant GQ sports editor, Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s mother, Richard Jenkins and Jenna Elfman as Dylan’s father and sister, and uncredited Jason Segel and Rashida Jones in a romcom-takeoff film within the film, add to the skillful ensemble fun.
It’s also interesting — for those keeping score — that Kunis, who shared more than billing with co-star Portman in Black Swan, then signed on for a similar sex-only-relationship project.
I’m just sayin’.
Director Will Gluck, who co-wrote the biocoastal, breezy screenplay with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman (who co-wrote the story with Harley Peyton), includes a few forced, clunky set pieces (especially the two — count ’em, two — flash mob numbers) and far too much product placement for complete comfort, but also enough sophisticated banter to engage us.
Yes, the script teases us with the possibility that it will find a way to bypass the romantic-comedy movie clichés that we have all gotten used to — and that the film pokes considerable fun at in the early going — and then ends up predictably embracing those familiar and dependable conventions anyway, as if there was no other creative or surprising direction to go in.
But we’ve been sufficiently diverted, so we feel churlish complaining.
Which is why we’ll try to avoid getting emotionally involved with 2½ stars out of 4 for the raunchy romp, Friends with Benefits. There are strings attached, but at least they’re attached to laughs.