Monday, July 25, 2011

Movie Review: Friends with Benefits

Friends with Benefits ***
Directed by: Will Gluck.
Written by: Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck.
Starring: Justin Timberlake (Dylan), Mila Kunis (Jamie), Patricia Clarkson (Lorna), Jenna Elfman (Annie), Richard Jenkins (Mr. Harper), Bryan Greenberg (Parker), Woody Harrelson (Tommy), Nolan Gould (Sam), Andy Samberg (Quincy), Shaun White (Himself), Emma Stone (Kayla).

I am now fully convinced that Justin Timberlake has the makings of a real movie star. When he started his acting career, he was smart, taking on supporting roles and improving as an actor before jumping to lead roles. He is actually quite good in movies like Alpha Dog, Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan, but he was smart enough to pick smaller roles in smaller movies, so that even if he wasn’t good, his acting career wouldn’t become a joke. He has improved his comedic skills by countless guest starring roles on Saturday Night Live, and last year, he really did deserve an Oscar nomination for his great performance in The Social Network. In Friends with Benefits, he gives what I like to call a perfect “movie star” performance. No, it isn’t a deep performance, nor perhaps a great one, but he is charming and funny and likable – he sucks the audience in, and makes you care about his character, which is nearly impossible to do with romantic comedies these days. Not to be outdone, his co-star Mila Kunis – quietly building a very solid resume – matches him step for step. Yes, Friends with Benefits is as clichéd as the romantic comedies it pokes of during the course of the movie. But I enjoyed every minute of it.

Timberlake stars as Dylan, born and raised in LA, and making a name for himself running a news blog there. He is young, energetic and creative, and that is why Jamie (Mila Kunis) headhunts him for a job as GQ’s art director in New York. She meets him at the airport, and takes him to his interview, but he isn’t sold on moving to New York yet. So, she takes him around town and sells him on the city. He loves it, agrees to take the job, and moves out. He knows nobody in New York except for Jamie, and the two quickly become best friends. The both have just gone through breakups, and don’t want to date anyone, but they do want sex. The figure they can have sex with each other – just as friends. And we all know how that is going to turn out.

Yes, the plot of the movie is very similar to No Strings Attached with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman from earlier this year. That movie was okay, but immediately forgettable. Friends with Benefits is funnier and smarter. It reminded me of the Judd Apatow movies in recent years, which mocks the clichés of the genre they are in, while still being a fine example of one. It works here because of the charm of the two leads, who are perfectly suited for each other. The supporting cast – Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s aging hippie mother, Woody Harrelson as Dylan’s gay friend, Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s Alzheimer’s stricken father and Jeanna Elfman as his ever supportive sister are all fine, but forgettable. What we want is Timberlake and Kunis, and they do not disappoint.

This summer has had a lot of R-Rated comedies – some quite good (Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses), some being blasé (Bad Teacher) and some downright bad (The Hangover Part II). Friends with Benefits is better than any of them, because it sustains the laughs throughout the whole movie. Yes, you know before you walk into the theater just what is going to happen. But for me, I didn’t care. The leads sold the movie, and they did an excellent job. If more romantic comedies were this good, I could actually start enjoying the genre again.

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