Sunday, July 24, 2011
Closing Time: Friends With Benefits Reviewed
"It can't be that bad!" you say. It is. The first act of Friends With Benefits is actually embarrassing. Jamie (Mila Kunis) is a headhunter prone to hiring media professionals; Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is a blogger of some sort who runs a site with six million viewers per month (LOLOL!) and is up for a gig at GQ. They meet in New York, and Jamie decides to take Dylan on a tour of the "real New York." Not the stuff you see on Seinfeld, they say. Right. Tone-deaf doesn't even begin to describe these scenes, but this might: Jamie and Dylan go to Times Square, where a flash mob procedes to break out set to a remix of "New York, New York." It's as grotesque as it sounds, and concludes with Jamie saying that sometimes New Yorkers feel lonely so it's nice to do something communal. Hold here for vomit clean-up.
Ahem. Everything a romcom like Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist gets right about New York, Friends With Benefits gets dead wrong. Getting worse couldn't actually be possible — so thankfully for Friends With Benefits, it gets better! See: the sex.
The sex between Jamie and Dylan works in ways that the sex between Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher's characters in No Strings Attached did not. For starters — through montage, but still — Friends With Benefits sets up that Jamie and Dylan are friends. As such, the benefits matter — the sex has stakes, something No Strings Attached never bothered with. You can see how the sex affects the friendship between Dylan and Jamie. This matters.
Another positive for Friends With Benefits is that the script gets smart after the first act. Or, well, "smart." Dylan and Jamie spend a good chunk of conversation mocking romcom conventions all while the film winks at the fact that it will revel in those same romcom conventions in the third act. It's clever in a Screenwriting 101-type way, but clever is more than you can say for most romantic comedies. Of course, this cleverness is also where Friends With Benefits misses a huge opportunity, and misses becoming something really worthwhile within the limitations of the genre: Mila Kunis is the lovelorn lonely heart looking for a Prince Charming, meaning she's the typical romcom "girl." It's pandering, it's cheap, and it's sexist; a movie like Friends With Benefits should have flipped the script on this outdated characterization, especially since so many of the jokes toy with the typical romantic comedy conventions. (There is a runner throughout Friends With Benefits where Jamie and Dylan watch a fake romcom called I Love New York, I Love You with Jason Segel and Rashida Jones; this could be the best part of the entire film.)
That kind of character change also presents itself in the casting. Kunis — as Dylan says — is brusque, like a "fast-talking carny"; she's got the pants on in this relationship, except for when the script says she doesn't. Meanwhile, Timberlake is the mushy sad-case with the sick dad (an effective Richard Jenkins in a weird role) — it would be so easy for him to be the romantic one, but the script keeps things conventional when convention is what it bristles against. As such, Timberlake is miscast here. His prowess as a performer gets less impressive the more he appears onscreen, which is unfortunate — after all, he is charming. He's just not very believable as the George Clooney/Jon Hamm-type cad when he needs to be. (Also of note, Friends With Benefits marks the second movie of the summer — behind Bad Teacher — where audiences get to see Justin Timberlake's orgasm face. Hooray?)
In the end, Friend With Benefits is charming enough. It's kind of a manufactured mess, but it works at times, especially in the last reel. After all, how bad could a movie be when it features many, many instances of "Closing Time" by Semisonic, a montage set to "Jump" by Kris Kross, and some legitimately great supporting turns by Jenna Elfman and Woody Harrelson? Don't sleep on the terribleness of that first act, though. Seriously, what happened there? Reshoots? Another writer? A massive head wound? Director Will Gluck (Easy A), you're slightly better than that! When you watch Friends With Benefits on a plane later this year, you'll see what I mean.