I’m glad that Friends with Benefits came out after No Strings Attached because it perfectly demonstrates that, when it comes to romantic comedies — or comedies in general — it’s not about the premise, it’s what you do with the premise that matters. I’m reminded of those improv exercises where two teams are given the same situation to act out. In this scenario, it’s like having the director of Year One act out the situation followed by the director of Easy A. The results are exactly what you’d expect: One movie is terrible, while the other is outstanding.
I won’t even bother with the plot details because the title alone gives the outline away. It’s something many of us have tried, although it’s never worked, not once in the history of mankind. Although, to be fair, the fuck buddies scenario usually follows a break up, which allows you the privileges of a sexual relationship without the complications of an emotional one. If you’re lucky, it’ll buy you an extra week of action; the emotional repercussions are usually not worth it.
Here, Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) — an emotional unavailable graphic designer and an emotionally damaged headhunter, respectively — attempt it at the outset of the friendship. It works for a while, then it gets complicated, there’s the bridge and then the predicable denouement with the big romantic gestures that, in this case, both satirize and play into the romcom formula. But Friends with Benefits works — and it works well — because of the outstanding writing, because of the chemistry between the two leads, and because it subverts the romantic comedy blueprint while hewing closely to it. It gives us exactly what we want, yet allows us to stay above the pedestrian Heiglian fray.
Friends with Benefits is what most of us want in a comedy. It’s funny; it’s clever; the banter is fast-paced, R-rated, and witty; it’s rife with pop culture allusions that never feel forced; there are great cameos (Emma Stone, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones); it has fantastic supporting characters (Woody Harrelson as a gay sports editor, Patricia Clarkson as a variation of her Easy A character, and the always brilliant Richard Jenkins); it has a great soundtrack full of both the new and nostalgic; and it has several actual authentic emotional moments, a rarity for romantic comedies these days. It even contains copious amounts sex between the sixth most bangable celebrity of the year and a talented musician turned comedy actor who — at this point — is basically irresistible. If Justin Timberlake hasn’t won you over yet, then you’re just being stubbornly contrarian. Kunis, moreover, is everything you loved about her in Forgetting Sarah Marshall times three and minus a shirt.
What it doesn’t have are comic-book action superheroes, but why anyone would rather see Chris Evans in blue tight pants over Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake with no pants is a mystery to me. This is why I will never understand comic-book geeks. Get some perspective. It’s a bare-assathon, folks. There is Kunis side-boob all over this movie, so get right with your head people and stop worrying about what Captain America’s goddamn shield is made of.
Friends with Benefits comes from Will Gluck, who has quickly and quietly — with Fired Up!, Easy A and now this — become the most underappreciated comedic director working in Hollywood right now, and he does it without cramming Apatowian bromance down your throat. What’s even more refreshing is that the only pattern that Gluck has fallen into is making movies with great scripts, less about the high-concept and the big stars and more about the comedy and finding the right people to sell it. In Kunis and Timberlake, he’s struck gold, and the result is a great goddamn romantic comedy.