The romantic comedy formula is one of the more beloved and despised film plot formulas because it doesn’t represent real life at all, yet so many people wish it did. Friends with Benefits offers a fresh take on the familiar plot, with characters who seem completely aware of the cliché romantic tropes and try to avoid them. At its core, however, the film is still a standard boy-meets-girl-etc. tale complete with a big gesture finale, but the filmmakers should still be commended on their ability to dress it up so convincingly as something more.
Dylan Harper (Justin Timberlake) is the creative design lead at a successful Web site in Los Angeles. He’s scouted by hotshot headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis) to head the creative department at GQ in New York. They quickly become friends, but as young professionals, they don’t have the time or emotions to invest in a committed relationship, yet they both want the physical gratification. They decide to try being friends who have casual sex. While it seems like a great idea to begin with, the two discover that keeping their emotions at bay is harder than they thought.
Friends with Benefits does its very best to get away from the traditional romantic comedy plot by distracting audiences with a lot of comedic minutia, like the differences between New Yorkers and Angelinos, clumsy first-time sex with a new partner, a tablet app gag and more. The film is also Progressive in its values with promiscuous characters, single-parent families and homosexuality. Friends with Benefits feels very modern. It steps back from being a true departure from standard romcoms, however, when it relies on the conventional idea of the male being the pursuer in a relationship. With such self-aware characters, it would have been nice to see a relationship start without a meet-cute and involve a real problem that wasn’t over a simple misunderstanding that the man had to resolve. Alas. It’s not the end of the world, but consider what could have been achieved!
Overall, the plot is the least relevant to the film. Like a Christmas tree, the plot exists only out of necessity of having something to decorate. In this case, the ornaments are genuinely funny scenes. One of the best moments features Dylan and Jamie having sex for the first and treating the situation as a purely physical – almost clinical – exhibition, with both parties plainly laying out their idiosyncrasies without all the fear that comes with emotional attachment. Another physical scene features Dylan getting out of bed in the middle of sex to relieve himself and explaining why it’s difficult for men to pee with an erection. It’s during this cinematic voyeurism into those most private of moments that the comedy is at its best since it touches on experiences that most people have shared, but won’t share publicly. There are other gags, of course, but they’re largely standard filler that aren’t really necessary to tell the story.
In fact, Friends with Benefits feels a little long. That’s because so much time is spent just living with the characters. Audiences are treated to Dylan’s management style, Jamie’s prickly relationship with her mother (Patricia Clarkson) and of course the couple’s frequent outings. Then just when audiences think the main characters have already been well established, there’s even more development when Dylan takes Jamie to LA to meet his sister (Jenna Elfman) and father (Richard Jenkins) who is afflicted by Alzheimer’s. At some point, audiences may wonder where the film is going, but then something funny happens and all is forgiven.
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are perfectly cast for their roles. While they don’t come across as believable in their onscreen professions, they get the job done when it comes to simply being young people trying to maintain a relationship in a hectic world. To that end, they represent the target audience very well. Furthermore, they both look stunning in the film – full and chiseled in the appropriate areas – and represent how audiences wished they looked in real life. As such, they both carry the film handily and viewers will enjoy watching the couple interact.
Friends with Benefits is a film that tries to shed Hollywood clichés and mostly succeeds, but fails when it calls attention to its self-awareness. Nevertheless, it’s truly funny, with a little bit of romance, starring very beautiful people. The film could have been more, but that shouldn’t convince audiences to deprive themselves of this good time.