Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Jul 24, 2011 6:12 pm 
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MILA KUNIS AND JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE IN FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS

Holding back the rom-com

The phrase "friends with benefits" denotes a couple with an ongoing sexual relationship who are "just friends," eschewing romantic attachment. They choose this arrangement because they've gotten burned, usually recently -- and maybe they're so success-driven they can't allow themselves the time for real intimacy. There have already been multiple treatments of this theme, including a TV series; a 2009 indie film (directed by Gorman Bechard); and, earlier this year, Ivan Reitman's comedy starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, No Strings Attached. The gist is always the same: ultimately, the arrangement breaks down when the "sex-only" "friends" fall in love. Now we have Will Gluck's version. Does it add anything new? Doubtful. But it gives two lively and appealing up-and-comers, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, to strut their stuff, and they talk faster and smarter than Natalie and Ashton. And they get assured backup from Patricia Clarkson, Woody Harrelson, and Richard Jenkins, as Mila's flaky mom, Justin's flamboyant gay coworker, and his dad, respectively.

Often FWB's are old friends, one of whom secretly adores the other but accepts the sex-only deal as better than nothing. Gluck's screenplay, penned by Keith Marryman and David A. Newman with his collaboration, omits that feature: Jamie (Kunis) is a headhunter who has just found Dylan (Timberlake) a job as art director of GQ magazine and transplanted him from LA to her own stamping ground, New York City (NYC's intimacy-in-a-crowd charm is dramatized with several flash scenes staged in Grand Central Station). The newness of the friendship robs the action of some of the FWB story's usual emotional resonance. The other basic feature of the plot is retained, though, because both Jamie and Dylan have just ended relationships, so they're leery of starting a new one. Their respective breakup scenes, both staged on the street in the evening during dates as the film begins, are overlapped Tweedledum-Tweedledee fashion, so you can barely tell one from the other. Some resonance is lost that way too, but it gets things going briskly. In effect Jamie sweeps Dylan off his feet, except that he must have a lot going for him on his own to land the GQ job immediately. But she shows him New York, and thus the "friendship" begins.

In doing this Jamie shows Dylan she's a hip, fun person. She also becomes his only friend. Their get-togethers are only ostensibly not dates. But they tell each other they want to be friends. Then the moment comes when they decide to have sex. To underline the non-romantic aspect they comically point out their preferences as to positions, erogenous zones, and other peculiarities (he tends to sneeze at the moment of orgasm, and so on).

Jamie's flaky mom Lorna (a very droll Patricia Clarkson) turns up right when the experiment has begun. An old Seventies slut who doesn't even know for sure who Jamie's dad was, Lorna thoroughly approves of Dylan and the sex-only deal. It's how she lived her life. But she is chronically unreliable and when she and Jamie are to have mom-and-daughter time on the Fourth of July weekend, she splits without warning and goes back to Cleveland, leaving Jamie, high and dry, to be rescued by Dylan and taken to LA to meet his touching dad (Jenkins) with early Alzheimer's, his caring sister Annie (Jenna Elfman), and cute little brother Sam (Nolan Gould), a budding magician. At this point, the FWB cover is effectively blown.

As in all these stories, Jamie and Dylan go back and forth but wind up happily ever after, or the 21st century equivalent of same. Like No Stings Attached, Friends with Benefits satisfies various impulses, indulging old-fashioned romanticism while flirting lengthily with non-commitment along the way.

Mila Kunis, a fellow-alumnus with Ashton of That '70s Show who showed her great warmth and appeal in the Apatow-sponsored Forgetting Sarah Marshall and held her own in Black Swan, is a very appealing actress, and her scenes with Justin Timberlake are energetic, full of rapad-fire dialogue and skillful physical business in multiple sex scenes that they both handle skillfully, though the chemistry is not intense. These are two actors with the looks, the timing, and the presence to move to starring roles.

The weaknesses of this movie's basic setup has been mentioned: since Jamie and Dylan have just met, the emotional undercurrent of old friends trying to add a new, complicating element is lost. The two characters are also a little too similar. They are both live wires, highly competitive and accomplished (though neither is seen doing much actual work). In No Strings Attached, Ashton Kutcher's character fit his usual laid-back personality, while Portman's was a driven young doctor with only half-hours free here and there at odd hours. The movie showed their frequent, rushed couplings. It's harder to see how Jamie and Dylan are different from any contemporary couple trying each other out before committing, except for their initial pretense that there will be no romance. And they are not different enough from each other to show the contrast that made Kucher and Portman an interesting match.

Ashton Kutcher's movies are routinely trashed, and critics are going to cut Mila and Justin more slack. But Guck's Friends with Benefits seems utterly conventional, and both actors have done better work. Though it was a terrible movie, Bad Teacher gave Timberlake a better chance in a minor role to show his distinctive comic potential. His live-wire energy worked brilliantly for him in a richer setting playing Sean Parker in the Fincher-Sorkin Social Network. Mila Kunis just seems capable of more comedy and more warmth than this. Friends with Benefits offers more starring roles than either Mila or Justin has had so far, but it should be just a stepping stone to better things.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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