Tuesday 1 May 2012

Movie Review: Friends With Benefits (2011)

Friends With Benefits places sex at the front end of a romantic comedy, and builds a deeper relationship in spite of a commitment by the main characters to avoid one. It's a successful and agile approach to the genre, helped along by appealing leads who give the impression of having loads of fun.

New York executive recruiter Jamie (Mila Kunis) convinces blogging whiz-kid Dylan (Justin Timberlake) to accept the job of artistic director with GQ magazine, and to relocate from Los Angeles to Manhattan. Jamie and Dylan become friends, but they are both coming out of recently collapsed relationships. Lonely and unwilling to get emotionally entangled, they agree to have regular sex for pure physical pleasure with no commitments.

As they get to know each other better, Dylan meets Jamie's free-spirited mother Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), and discovers that Jamie does not know who her father was. Jamie joins Dylan on a trip to Los Angeles and meets his dad (Richard Jenkins), struggling with worsening dementia. Dylan and Jamie begin to genuinely care for each other, but this threatens the foundation of their care-free friendship-with-casual-sex relationship.

Friends With Benefits makes the bold decision to bring the sex and foul language to the forefront, and is all the better for it. Jamie and Dylan talk awkwardly about sex, share energetic but still artistic sex scenes, and Jamie's foul mouth is cleverly worked into her personality. The result is a film about relationships and sexuality that is not coy about its central subject matter.

Kunis and Timberlake make for an attractive couple, with an easy chemistry and steady spark. Jamie's flighty mother and Dylan' suffering father provide for sufficient if predictable complexity to their characters, and Jamie's unlikely career as a headhunter is a refreshing change from the typical caterers and cute corner bakery owners who have dominated rom coms for far too long.

Kunis is the more dominant screen presence, her acting a tad theatrical but never less than entertaining. Timberlake delivers an understatedly charming performance, poking some fun at his real life persona and politely allowing Kunis to hog most of the spotlight when needed. The supporting friends are rather sparse, with only Woody Harrelson as GQ's gay sports writer registering an impact. Emma Stone has a tiny role as Dylan's ex-girlfriend.

Friends With Benefits is director Will Gluck's follow up to the terrific Easy A (Stone's break-out movie, and again with Clarkson as the mother), Gluck beginning to demonstrate a flair for punching up established genres. He also co-wrote the script, full of edgy one-liners and spiced with barbed inter-coastal jibes.

Friends With Benefits does not reinvent the romantic comedy, but does deliver a flirty and handsome example of how good the genre can be.

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