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Entries in Friends with Benefits [2011] (1)

Tuesday
Jan102012

Friends with Benefits (2011)

The Degradation of Liberation

Friends with Benefits would have you believe it's a rom-com for sexually liberated adults. I counted two adult characters in the whole movie; one has Alzheimer's, and the other is played by Jenna Elfman who, fifteen years ago, made a brief career of playing developmentally arrested flakes. Everyone else is a teenager in grown-up clothing--abusing the powers of maturity but failing to actually be mature.

We meet Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis), two twentysomethings who get dumped by their insignificant others at the beginning of the movie. Their partners cite emotional detachment as grounds for seeking something real, and it's easy to understand why. The undeniably attractive stars play ugly, selfish, commitment-phobes. When the nice--and therefore super-lame--dumpers (Andy Samberg and Emma Stone) left the story, I desperately wanted to go with them.

Soon, Dylan and Jamie meet each other. She's a New York talent scout. He's a recently transplanted design genius from L.A. who lands an art-director gig at GQ. Together, they roam the Big Apple, doing non-tourist-y things (like, um, checking out the Brooklyn Bridge and visiting Times Square). One night, while commenting ironically on a crappy chick-flick from the comfort of Jamie's couch, they decide to become "Friends with Benefits": meaning all the sex of a new relationship without the sappy emotional stuff.

Cue the boning montage of funny positions, roaring orgasms, and the kind of chit-chatty "a-little-to-the-left" pillow talk that only rom-coms puppets have ever engaged in. If this sounds an awful lot like No Strings Attached--the other combatant in 2011's Battle of the Feelings-Free Relationship Movies, you're half correct: Friends with Benefits is exactly the same movie, save for the swearing and ass shots permitted by its "R" rating.

Director Will Gluck and co-writers David A. Newman and Keith Merryman may think they've delivered a slick, His Girl Friday-style modern romance. But all the allegedly snappy dialogue and pop references in the world can't make unlikable characters empathetic--despite numerous detours in the film's second half that are meant to humanize them during a brief period of separation.

By focusing on Dylan's complicated relationship with his mentally deteriorating dad (Richard Jenkins) and Jamie's with her crazy, free-spirited mom (Patricia Clarkson), the screenplay tiptoes into serious subject matter--but this is the wrong kind of movie for those subjects. Rather than explaining our protagonists' current relationship problems, these subplots only serve to paint Dylan and Jamie as unrealistic, single-issue adults. Mathematically speaking, I guess it's possible that monsters like this exist in the real world, but I've never met them and am happy for small miracles.

One character I'm perfectly fine in calling "bullshit" on, though, is Woody Harrelson's Tommy. GQ's macho, boisterous sports editor is also a constantly-on-the-prowl gay man who gives sometimes heartfelt but mostly sarcastic advice to Dylan--which would be great, if Tommy weren't such a cartoon character. He can't enter a park, room, or casual conversation without letting everyone know of his insatiable quest for sex. He's the obnoxious Hollywood version of out and proud, whose purpose in life, I guess, is to prove that gays can treat people like disposable sex vessels just as well as straights can. Again, maybe Tommy is based on someone the writers actually know. I almost typed "based on a real person", but such a creature probably wouldn't qualify--even if it technically existed.

You're correct in thinking this critique is loaded with projection. People react to art, partially by comparing and contrasting their own experiences with whatever it is the artist is trying to say. Friends with Benefits brims with unbelievable characters taking way too long to reach clichéd conclusions. Like teenagers, they make lots of dumb mistakes and say naive things all the time--but these characters aren't teens. They're allegedly New York and L.A. adults (one being a GQ art director who doesn't know what a flash mob is). I have no problem watching sexy idiots on screen, as long as the writers and performers give me a reason to care.

About those performers: Kunis and Timberlake are way too good for this material. Timberlake, in particular, proves that he can play a generic rom-com lead with all the volume of two-percent milk, but there's no room for the dazzling personality he's displayed on Saturday Night Live or as a supporting player in Alpha Dog. And Kunis, who was the best part of Black Swan, plays the tired male fantasy of the girl who just wants cock and beer and no talking. Her femininity is so watered down by generic off-putting sass that I could barely stop the flashbacks to That 70s Show.

The film spends a lot of time ridiculing rom-coms in preciously meta fashion, but the filmmakers are too ill-equipped to keep their story from devolving into the same tired crap. Actually, it's worse than that: when Bryan Greenberg pops up as a doctor who courts Jamie for awhile, his presence is warm and refreshing. He respects her new No Sex 'Til the Fifth Date rule, and appears to be falling in love. But because this is Timberlake's movie, the Greenberg character must be tossed aside--in this case, he randomly loses interest the morning after he and Jamie make love. Nothing leading up to this utterly false moment suggests he'll split, but he does, leaving Jamie to eventually fall back into Dylan's lap. Pathetic.

I would suggest that fans of this movie demand more from the genre, but I doubt they'd even think to do so. Friends with Benefits is the kind of inert, gender-stereotype-reinforcing garbage that would normally upset me. Fortunately, it's too boring to raise an eyebrow, much less my blood pressure.