Friday, July 22, 2011
Movie review: Friends with Benefits
A fun summer film for consenting cosmopolitan adults.
Everything about this movie is trying to look and feel — and sound! — hip, from its amusing rapid-fire exchanges of profanity-laced dialog, to its eclectic pop music soundtrack (including such diverse fare as Fitz & the Tantrums, Kriss Kross, and G. Love and Special Sauce), right up to the clever iPad-inspired touchscreen end credits.
Combine this with a keenly observed sense of urban social consciousness, a whole lot of humor, and some genuine (and unexpectedly frank) steaminess in the sex scene department, and what we've got here is a fun summer film for consenting cosmopolitan adults.
None of this would work, of course, unless stars Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake seemed to be hitting it off — by getting it on — onscreen. And they do: They really, really do.
When we first meet them, both Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) are in the process of being dumped by their respective lovers. The partner-critical consensus on Dylan is that he's "emotionally unavailable." In Jamie's case, it's a matter of "emotional damage." Separated by 2,000 miles of the country, they independently come to the conclusion that they'd prefer to be more like George Clooney (i.e., emotionally detached — or, as Dylan puts it — "just work and f**k.") They already shape up to be flip sides of a single yin-yang coin, and they've never even met.
That changes when successful California-based webzine creator Dylan flies to New York for an interview set up by corporate headhunter Jamie. He expresses his skepticism over the position (with GQ), and explains to her that he's only there to explore his options. Probably wouldn't even take the job. But when the interview goes well and he gets the offer, Jamie makes it her mission to show him what a stimulating place New York City can be.
(See, she only gets her commission if he hires on.)
Jamie gives Dylan the whirlwind six-hour insider's tour of Manhattan, highlighted by their immersion in some flash mob action in Times Square. She closes the deal by taking him to her secret hangout, which involves sneaking through parking garage security to access the rooftop of a mid-level skyscraper: The Empire State Building towers above, while the garishly-lit streets below seem impossibly remote. "It's the only place in the city where you can see the stars," she tells him, lying back and staring up at the sky.
Once Dylan moves to the city, he and Jamie begin spending more and more time together as friends — they've shared tales of their relationship traumas, and thus intentionally avoid a romantic connection. (Besides, he's a laid-back Californian and she's a high-intensity New York gal. Totally incompatible, right?) But they clearly enjoy each other's company, and eventually — after sitting though a living room DVD screening of a sappy romantic comedy — they expound vociferously on their grievances in relation to... well... relations. But, dang it, they miss the sex!
And so it happens that Dylan floats the idea of boinking for boinking's sake, without all the usual romantic baggage. The idea makes so much sense to both of them that they jump at it (by jumping each other), and so the stage is set for the complications that everyone in the audience must know are bound to ensue.
A veritable smorgasbord of talented supporting players adds flavor to the entertaining and semi-predictable proceedings which follow. We're introduced to Jamie's free-spirited bohemian mom Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), who walks in on the not-exactly-lovers while they are in flagrante delicto. Later, during a Fourth of July visit to California, Jamie is introduced to Dylan's sister (Jenna Elfman) and Alzheimer's-afflicted father (Richard Jenkins). At the GQ offices, Dylan strikes up a cautious but increasingly close friendship with sports writer Tommy (Woody Harrelson), who is out as out can be, without being in any way limp-wristed about it.
Standout among the cameo players is snowboarder Shaun White, who reveals a hilariously confrontational side of his celebrity self. (Or is he just joking? Dylan can't be sure...)
Friends with Benefits works as well as it does — and that's pretty darn well — because it overcomes the rom com cliches it makes fun of by confronting them directly, and paying an odd sort of homage to them. (They're not cliches for nothing, after all: they surface again and again because of their broad narrative appeal.) Jamie's not likely to get the carriage ride through Central Park that the star-crossed lovers in her favorite movie share in the last reel, but that doesn't mean another kind of grand romantic gesture isn't in store for her — once Dylan comes to his senses.
Oh, I almost forgot: you'll want to hang around for some outtakes after the end credits - only, they're not from the movie you're expecting them to be from.
ESPECIALLY THAT ONE IN PARTICULAR: "You L.A. folk are so cute!" - Jamie, to Dylan
NEITHER DOES MUSICAL THEATER, BUT... : "Harry Potter does not make you gay!" - Dylan
BUT AT LEAST SHE'S A PRETTY ONE: "You're fast-talking and brusque — it's like I'm bringing home a carnie!" - Dylan, to Jamie