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Friends with Benefits
Justin Timberlake is Dylan, a smooth-talking art director at a start-up news blog who has a problem with intimacy. Mila Kunis is Jamie, a corporate headhunter who believes in Hollywood romance but has trouble finding the right guy. She has issues with not knowing her dad and with her flighty mom (Patricia Clarkson); Dylan has problems with emotional distance in his family. When Jamie recruits him to become art director at GQ magazine, they hit it off really well, and when Dylan takes the gig and moves from Los Angeles to New York, he and the outgoing young lady become super fast friends. Since both have been recently dumped and are stuck in a sexual dry spell, they decide to try having sex with each other, convinced they can stay friends and keep the love stuff out of it.
Naturally, they can't and that's how a raunchy sex comedy becomes a fairly sappy romantic comedy instead. Friends with Benefits is directed by Will Gluck (Easy A) and the script is credited to him and three other writers. This could be why it often feels like not everything is coming off the same page. As a story-driven relationship film, Friends with Benefits is a bit all over the place, full of a lot of extraneous elements that are piled on to crowd the would-be couple toward one another. There is Woody Harrelson as the gay sports writer with an endless vocabulary of penis-related wordplay, and Richard Jenkins as Dylan's father with Alzheimer's who gets lucid at just the right moment when Dylan needs to be put on the straight and narrow. Harrelson and Jenkins are two fine actors who naturally make the most of their no-pressure supporting roles. Though "supporting" may be the wrong word: they aren't holding the rest of the cast up, more like leapfrogging right over their shoulders.
Which isn't to say that Timberlake and Kunis aren't good, because they actually are a pretty likable pair with strong chemistry--though, fatally, chemistry that makes them seem perfect as best pals and not lovers. They trade quips fast and furious, maintaining a His Girl Friday-level verbal pace, just without that classic movie's sharp wit. The extended bedroom scenes are raunchy, to the point of almost being embarrassing to watch. Being dirty is not enough, the dialogue and gags should actually be funny. The mid-film detour into more complicated territory doesn't fare much better. The sex stuff is at least bold and somewhat original, whereas the third-act falling-in-love scenario is predictable and lazy. Surprise, surprise, everyone else sees these two crazy kids are in love before they do, and they end up hurting each other and splitting up before finally putting their emotions on the line.
It would be nice if there was some big reason to give for why Friends with Benefits is so flat. There isn't anything particularly unctuous about it, the movie just doesn't work. It's not funny, it's not romantic, and despite the attractiveness of the two main stars (and how often they are naked or in their underwear), not even sexy. Everyone involved works hard to keep the manic energy going, but to no avail. As much as I wanted to like Friends with Benefits, it's not the sort of movie that demands a second date. Consider this the movie review equivalent of a break-up. "It's not me, Friends with Benefits, it's most definitely you."
The widescreen image is well rendered. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer has vibrant colors and decent resolution, only looking somewhat soft from time to time. There is no artifacting or combing, and the blacks look solid.
The 5.1 audio mix is very good, with an excellent balance between music and dialogue, and some good front and back effects. Outdoor scenes in particular have a good atmospheric range, with ambient sounds lighting up the back channels.
Other audio options are an English description track, French (dubbed in Quebec), Spanish, and Thai, all also in 5.1. Subtitle choices are English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Thai, Chinese, and Korean.
There is a quick bit after the film's closing credits where Timberlake and Kunis watch outtakes from the fake movie that inspires their arrangement (it stars Jason Segel and Rashida Jones), and they crack a sarcastic joke about how you can tell how a movie must be good because the actors clearly had fun making it. Okay, but the funny thing is, listening to the audio commentary with the two stars and the director, they clearly did have fun making it. The joke was so right-on the money! The trio is playful together and they all three clearly get along, making for a light-hearted, buoyant track. This kind of play also carries over into the seven minutes of outtakes, which are mainly giggles, pranks, and goofing around.
There are also nine minutes of deleted scenes that are about the same level as the rest of the movie. You will like these cuts if you like what was left in, essentially. These scenes have optional commentary by Gluck.
Note: The Blu-Ray has a few more features than the DVD edition of Friends with Benefits. Read about them, and also a more positive review of the movie, here.
Friends with Benefits tries hard to be likable, and that might be its real problem: it's so eager to please, it fails to really hit any particular mark with any precision or ferocity. A romantic sex comedy with a capable cast shouldn't be this lacking in humor, love, or raw sexiness. Friends with Benefits is delivered in a slick package, and it slides right by without making an impact or suggesting any meaningful reason it should stick around. Rent It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.