Reviewed by Stephen Himes
Two very attractive people have very enjoyable looking sex and hang out in very picturesque locations in New York and Los Angeles. They say things very confidently, as you would if you were sexy, successful, and living in an oversized New York apartment. And that, pretty much, is the movie.
But here’s the thing: Hollywood used to be really good at this kind of thing. Too many romantic comedies try to make you feel by dragging out the ending and/or force-feeding important emotions. They have something to say about modern divorce and the difficulties of single parenthood, or the ennui of realizing you’re not who you thought you were going to be.
Don’t get me wrong—I want my romantic comedies to be about these things. But too often, romantic comedies think they’re about things when they’re really not. They’re just simplistic clichés dressed up like real movies, substituting acting! for nuanced scripts. The great romantic comedies of old, when directors cut their teeth on Shakespeare, were both enjoyable and had great scripts. Now, romantic comedies think they have great scripts that require acting! when they really aren’t and don’t.
Why does “Friends With Benefits” succeed? Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are not Hepburn and Tracy. But they’re a heckuva lot of fun without pretentiously trying to convince the audience that their movie is about anything. In short, it’s what Hollywood should do at a minimum, which Hollywood doesn’t often do anymore. Very often, words emerge from Mila and Justin (we should call them that because they feel so familiar in the movie) that don’t make a lot of sense, and I’m not sure why they do the things they do. But Mila and Justin say them so effortlessly, they make them their own. If you were that cool, you’d sound like that too.
And this is where “Friends With Benefits” takes on an interesting subtext that elevates the movie. How do I know what a blogger-turned-editor at GQ sounds like? For all any of us know, he could act, look, and sound just like Justin Timberlake—actually, that makes sense. And if you were a corporate headhunter agency landing big clients in New York, you’d probably put someone as sexy, confident, intelligent, and relentless as Mila Kunis on your team.
Before we go too far down this rabbit hole, let’s back up a bit. If “Friends With Benefits” is about anything, it’s about taking time away from stressful jobs to enjoy yourself. It’s about having the confidence to do fun things! Why not stage an elaborate 90’s song-themed flash mob for the girl you love? Why not get that beachfront property and walk the sandy beach barefoot? Why not take the job you’re scared of and just go for it? Why not take afternoon walks through the park and ad lib dialogue between strangers?
Director Will Gluck doesn’t believe that romantic comedies should make you believe a fantasy. Rather, he seems to think that romantic comedies should blur the difference between fantasy and reality. What is romance, anyway, if not abandoning pretention and just doing something fun because you feel like it? Look, Mila and Justin take long midday walks through the park hitting on strangers. Got too much work to do? Maybe you do, but is that extra hour really going to make that stress go away? Or will you get more done after a nooner? Do you think that in real life, you can’t just go out and find the perfect piece of abstract-advertising art for your sweetheart? That’s your problem, not “Friends With Benefits”’s problem.
There’s two specific scenes that capture the paradoxical synthetic reality, sincere vanity truth of Gluck’s worldview. First, Mila makes Justin swear on her iPad Bible app that they won’t get emotional after having premarital sex. Second, a helicopter has to rescue Justin literally off the Hollywood sign because he’s too afraid to jump. Go ahead, Justin, jump into Hollywood summertime movies! Gluck’s sense of humor and subtle irony emboldens these two stars to create something random and enjoyable out of nothing but an idea, a lack of pretention, and a sense of fun. It’s totally planned and constructed, calculated to mildly surprise you with how amusing it is, even if its just kinda random and doesn’t make any sense. “Friends With Benefits” is a Central Station flashmob of a movie.