Back in February, when No Strings Attached was released, there was much ado about the fact that another movie was being made with the same premise. This is not the first time that this has happened, of course: anyone remember Volcano and Dante’s Peak? How about Deep Impact and Armageddon? As a reluctant fan of romantic comedies, I saw No Strings Attached, and it was entertaining but ultimately really terrible. A few months later, a friend got her hands on some way-advanced screening passes for Friends with Benefits, and we went. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. When it was released last week, I went and saw it again. It was as good as I remember.
Jamie (Mila Kunis) is a corporate head-hunter in New York who recruits L.A. blogger Dylan (Justin Timberlake) for the art director at GQ. The two end up hitting it off and become friends, and after a while, they decide to embark on a friends-who-have-sex adventure. The premise is simple, but unlike No Strings Attached, this one actually works, because it’s really, really funny.
Directed by Will Gluck (Easy A) with a script he co-wrote with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, Gluck largely gets away with this conventional romantic comedy by skewering other films in the genre. The trash-talking of other romantic comedies allows the film to be both self-referential and self-deprecating, and for the most part, it works. The script is at its strongest when throwing out smart pop culture references, and at its weakest when playing it too safe with predictability.
What sets this (funny) comedy apart from its contemporaries isn’t just smart writing, though. Gluck’s film is smartly-cast, with a number of funny cameos (Andy Samberg, Emma Stone, Rashida Jones and Jason Segel),and excellent supporting characters. Woody Harrelson is very funny as a raunchy gay sports editor for GQ, and Patricia Clarkson does what she does best as Jamie’s flighty, free-spirited mom. Of course, it helps that Kunis and Timberlake have a kind of natural onscreen chemistry that is truly rare and really fun to watch: both are very good in their roles. Kunis is in fact exceptional as Jamie, elevating her character from the stock females that plague romantic comedies, giving her depth and allowing her to be funny, warm, and able to go head to head with the men in her world.
It’s not a perfect movie: at the end of the day, it’s still unequivocally conventional, sending the same message as the romantic comedies it pokes fun at. But it’s an entertaining, engaging movie, and there are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon.
Friends With Benefits is playing in theaters in wide release right now.