DUELING CRITICS: Friends with Benefits... Can Cinematic Opposite Sex Friendship Last?

by Jeff Beck with Tony Rutherford

Scene from Friends with Benefits
Scene from Friends with Benefits
HUNTINGTON, WV (HNN) - Just last year, director Will Gluck gave us the surprisingly hilarious comedy “Easy A.” Now he sets his sights on the conventional romantic-comedy with “Friends with Benefits” that revolves around two friends using each other as sex partners and nothing more. There have already been those comparing this to another similar film from not that long ago, “No Strings Attached.” Now I never did end up seeing that film, but if it was anything like this, then that’s most likely a good thing.

Dylan (Justin Timberlake), an art director for a website, has recently come to New York in an attempt to land a job at GQ with the help of “head hunter” Jamie (Mila Kunis). These two have recently gotten out of relationships that weren’t going particularly well, and seeing as how Dylan doesn’t know anyone else in New York, the two end up spending a lot of time together.

As they get to know each other, they get around to talking candidly about how they don’t want emotions to get in the way of their next relationship, which is where the idea of just having sex with each other without a relationship pops into their heads. This all seems fine at first for these two, but as expected, it becomes hard to keep the emotions separate from a purely physical relationship. Eventually Jamie comes to feel that there just might be something more to it than she had originally thought.

“Friends with Benefits” is a film that tries to mock the conventional clichés that we’ve come to see in several romantic-comedies over the years. Unfortunately, while trying to take a jab at the clichés, it ends up falling victim to all of the big ones throughout its runtime. This is a film that you could easily line up with the all-too-familiar formula that writers refuse to give up.

TONY: Jeff, Jeff, Jeff… how many flicks have ventured beyond the superficial when pitting a man and a woman as friends? In cinematic expression, this is an impossibility. Cupid’s arrow always fires emotions into the relationship. This one grabs the “sex” issue and turns it “casual.” We will just do it for fun. How long will it last? Will they stay ‘best friends’ or succumb to the usual pitfalls? The couple does pretty good; they even select ‘pick ups’ for the other.

First off, we have a couple that meet up randomly. Dylan and Jamie meet at a New York airport in a strange sort of way (she’s atop a luggage carousel trying to retrieve a sign with Dylan’s name on it). They hit it off rather well and slowly start to get to know each other. It’s obvious that there’s something there, but of course the characters themselves don’t realize this until much later.

When it finally gets to that point, there’s the standard random event/misunderstanding/stupid move by one of the characters (in this case, it’s the third option) that ends up breaking the two up, leaving the audience to wonder whether or not the two will ever get back together again. Well, it leaves those who have never seen a romantic-comedy in their entire life wondering whether or not the two will ever get back together again. Then we wait for the characters to realize their silly mistakes and finally get back together. I still long for the day when a writer will dare to think of something new to do with this genre.

TONY: I agree that cinematic romantic comedies rely too much on “random” happenings. They rely too often on the couple having a meaningful relationship, which, for the feel gooders can be restored. The break-up baggage doesn’t come up before the credits. There’s a kiss. Won’t one or both have new emotional “baggage” from enduring the near break up? Will the couple stick with each other?

Then there’s the problem of the premise. It’s semi-interesting, but it doesn’t support its runtime, even by a long shot. It becomes predictable far too early because you know that their emotions are going to get in the way sooner or later. With its incredibly predictable nature, we end up with a film that feels incredibly long at 109 minutes. It doesn’t help either that the film is not particularly funny. It even feels the need to sink down to Sandler humor (the lowest form) for a scene, but luckily it’s one scene only. There’s something worth a small smile every now and again, but nothing in the way of laugh-out-loud moments.

Timberlake and Kunis are not without their charm and presence. Last year, Timberlake delivered a memorable performance in “The Social Network” while Kunis did the same in “Black Swan.” Here, they have a little chemistry, but it never felt as though they truly connected.

DUELING CRITICS: Friends with Benefits... Can Cinematic Opposite Sex Friendship Last?
TONY: Fortunately, they did not explode with chemistry; otherwise the bedroom playful adventures would betray their true feelings. I think they have the quirky, off-beat skills that  placed them in non-relationship Hades. And, as for "chemistry," one critic called Benefits  "a '40s comedy in millennial skivvies. Kunis and Timberlake have the rare chemistry and rapid-fire patter of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, " Can’t say that I'll agree with the Boxoffice critic, Hepburn / Tracy are tough to equal. I do think this is a “daring” film, by exploring  the development of opposite sex friendships, best friendships, and (the expected) falling for each other. They have their own "formula," but it's not the same one's expected from romantic comedies.

Even with their talents, they could carry the cliché-heavy screenplay only so far. Perhaps this is just one of those projects that looked a whole lot better on paper, though the clichés should have still been blatantly apparent.

In the end, this is just another forgettable by-the-numbers romantic-comedy that ends up going nowhere unexpected.

TONY: Yes and no, these contrived reconciliations have inventive touches, but , neither is hauled off to a hospital or jail. It seems writers have neglected unrequited feelings and loves. No one wants to remind us of the one’s that got away, or , if we had followed, well, a hug and kiss likely would not have been forthcoming.

If it had tried to be a little funnier, or had stayed away from the same old formula we’ve seen a million times before, perhaps it could have been salvaged. The charm of the leads can only get the movie so far. Unfortunately for “Friends with Benefits,” it’s just about the only thing it has going for it.

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