This movie wants you to know that it isn’t one of those stupid Hollywood romantic comedies. The characters talk about “those” movies disparagingly and even watch a parody of that kind of film on TV. What’s more, in the opening scenes of Friends With Benefits, the actors let forth a barrage of four-letter words and sexual conversation, just to make sure you understand that this isn’t some sappy, formulaic studio picture.
But guess what? Friends with Benefits really is a Hollywood romantic comedy, protests notwithstanding. It’s a little brighter than most, and a lot franker about sex, both visually and verbally, but it still follows a familiar pattern, so why try to deny it?
What does set the film apart is the pairing of its stars, neither one of whom has anchored a romantic comedy before. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are thoroughly engaging and make a—
—great-looking couple; their easy rapport smooths out some of the script’s rough edges. You already know the story: a couple who click right away tell themselves they’re only interested in sex, and not a relationship. Complications ensue; it even gets serious for a while.
Having earned enthusiastic reviews for Easy A, director Will Gluck has the star of that film, Emma Stone, make a cameo appearance early on as Timberlake’s manic girlfriend, and recasts Patricia Clarkson, who played Stone’s mother, as Kunis’ flaky mom this time around. Jenna Elfman is a welcome presence as Timberlake’s sister and the always-solid Richard Jenkins plays his dad. Woody Harrelson is an asset to any film, although he’s stuck with a routine part as Timberlake’s wisecracking office-mate.
Cinematographer Michael Grady, who photographed Easy A, works overtime to offer fresh vistas of Manhattan and Los Angeles, although the nighttime scenes (shot with Panavision’s Genesis camera) are surprisingly grainy.
Gluck, who cowrote the screenplay with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman (from a story by Merryman, Newman, and Harley Peyton), loves making movie references, as he did in his previous feature. I’m not sure this is always wise, since it takes a film buff like me out of the scene when I’m distracted by a framed poster for It Happened One Night hanging over Kunis’ bed, or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice playing on television. At least he has good taste in movies.