“We’re just friends. We’re… messing around a little bit.”
I have a bit of a soft spot for Justin Timberlake. No, not because I was a fan of N*Sync (I wasn’t), but because I have a soft spot for everyone who starred in Richard Kelly’s doomed second feature, Southland Tales. At some point that movie, one of my absolute favourites, will be reviewed here but, suffice to say now, Timberlake is great in it. He’s made more of a name for himself recently in rom-coms, including Bad Teacher; Friends With Benefits gives him the main male romantic lead and he’s really rather engaging. He sparks well against Mila Kunis (also a fairly hot commodity these days) and the two manage to make a fairly generic script both engaging and funny.
Timberlake is Dylan, a website hotshot from Los Angeles headhunted by Jamie (Kunis) to work in New York for GQ Magazine. The two have both recently gone through breakups, and neither are looking for love. Fortunately, although they immediately hit it off, there’s no romantic chemistry and, perhaps rather improbably, the two settle down to their new-found friendship, safe in the knowledge that nothing will complicate the situation. Yet the problem, of course, is that both are starved of physical human interaction and, one drunken evening, they come up with a solution: they are going to be friends with benefits.
So far, so cliché. But part of the pleasure of a rom-com is that, for the most part, you can see the ending coming a mile away, and it’s what you want to happen. Of course, these two beautiful people, who challenge each other and have great fun together, are bound to get together: it’s the journey that we follow. And here, admittedly, there are some interesting twists and turns, as well as some pretty stupid, unnecessary things. So, while Dylan’s childhood stutter is entirely pointless (and only resurfaces in one scene that doesn’t benefit whatsoever from it), and the flashmobs, central to the story, are rather naively appropriated as an opportunity for lonely New Yorkers to feel as though they are part of something bigger (rather than, say, a pretty effective and now defunct trend of marketing), there’s a great film-within-a-film starring Jason Segel to make up for it. Jamie’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) is a dippy hippy child of the 70s, responsible for some slapstick moments but generally a bit daft but, in contrast, when Dylan’s father (Richard Jenkins) makes an appearance, he brings something unexpected and particularly poignant to the film. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson is clearly having a blast as the uber-gay sports editor for GQ, repeatedly making sure Dylan’s not similarly inclined. In fact, there are some great cameos throughout the film. It’s a mixed bag, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.
The developing romance between Jamie and Dylan also benefits from a healthy dash of knowingness; from Timberlake gamely making fun of himself while rapping and dancing to an old Kris Kross song, to the characters’ remarks about rom-coms in general, for the most part it works. The pair’s (non)relationship is also well established and, while some ideas are a bit far-fetched (their bedroom performances improve because neither needs to pretend they’re enjoying stuff so as to save their partner’s feelings, for example), at the end it can mostly be justified by pointing out that they are a great match for each other. The conclusion, clearly signposted and entirely inevitable, plays up on the genre’s conventions and is no less effective as a result. It’s a harmless film; an entertaining, light-hearted movie, with some funny scenes and a general sense of good humour – as much as I appreciate the classics and masterpieces, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with some escapism. Friends With Benefits didn’t win any awards, and I doubt it’ll go down in history as a rom-com classic, but it’s perfectly enjoyable nonetheless.