Director: Will Gluck
Stars: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Patricia Clarkson
Plot: Friends Dylan and Jamie attempt the seemingly impossible – to throw sex into their relationship without complications. But soon they learn this task is far from easy.
Many pop singers feel compelled to add ‘actor’ or ‘actress’ to their CV for added publicity and exposure. This is no problem if the productions in question are musicals – a truly multi-talented individual should thrive under such pressure, night after night. Then there are those lucky few who, without any formal training, skip to the front of the audition queue and get cast in film after film, purely on their looks…or maybe it’s because they are right for the role. Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and even Justin Bieber (shudder) have all tried, with varying degrees of success (often poor to dreadful), but does Justin Timberlake convince as a leading man on the big screen?
Timberlake stars as Dylan Harper, an art director for a small internet company in Los Angeles. He breaks up with his girlfriend Kayla (Emma Stone), spookily at the exact moment that Jamie Rellis (Kunis), a head hunter for a job agency in New York City, splits with her boyfriend. Their paths become intertwined when Dylan comes to New York to be interviewed for a position at GQ magazine, for which Jamie is responsible for filling. As Dylan finds out he has got the job and considers the move across the USA to the east coast, Jamie sells the city to him (by putting him at the centre of a flash mob in Times Square) and he makes the move. With Dylan’s lack of contacts in his new home, he develops a strong friendship with Jamie and they have fun testing each other’s prowess in asking strangers on dates.
One night, while sitting watching a romantic comedy at Jamie’s apartment, the two get talking about how ridiculous these rom-coms are at manipulating their audience with the same old formula and decide to defy the stereotype and have regular sex without the associated feelings, drama or commitment. After quite a few sexual encounters, Jamie tells Dylan that she needs a relationship and they go back to being just friends again – she starts dating Parker (Bryan Greenberg) but after they split acrimoniously, Dylan suggests they both go to see his family in California for the weekend as a change of scene. Whilst on holiday, a series of home truths hit home for both Dylan and Jamie as they realise that they have proper feelings for each other – but will it work like it does in the movies, or is that just an illusion created by Hollywood?
The opening few scenes of Friends With Benefits are quite hopeful. Instead of the same old stereotypes, there’s knowing dialogue looking at how rom-coms are designed to be utterly idealistic and ridiculous. Almost immediately, a movie poster of this particular genre gets a resounding “Shut up Katherine Heigl, you stupid liar!” which points to a film littered with similar humourous attacks on the typical plot devices of so-called chick-flicks. Sadly this is not the case and it is less than an hour before the script slides gently into the old clichés, hoping that no-one notices. A flurry of sex scenes to satisfy hormonal teenage viewers interspersed with (almost too) quick-witted lines give way to a much slower pace, which is a shame. Where the story moves from New York to Los Angeles is the point at which this begins – the predictable soap opera-inspired ‘we-belong-to-each-other-after-all’ plot is set in motion.
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis have a decent on-screen chemistry, making a convincing couple throughout the phases of their relationship. As far as their individual performances go though, it is Kunis who appears to be carrying her co-star throughout. To be fair to Timberlake who has had a go at comedy before, most recently in Bad Teacher (2011), he seems more comfortable with the more humourous elements of the storyline rather than the romance. The supporting cast has a few star names in it too with Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins and Patricia Clarkson fitting into their roles well although it is perhaps Jenkins who stands out in a slightly contrived subplot involving Alzheimer’s.
Friends with Benefits is better than its alter ego No Strings Attached (2011), but after an optimistic start we quickly go back to square one as far as the originality and expectation is concerned. As it stands, we’re still waiting for a rom-com with a truly fresh angle and a modern-day singer who can consistently wow cinema audiences as well as their music fans.