Last year Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis starred in Black Swan, and famously went at it in a drug and stress induced sex binge. Earlier this year Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher starred in No Strings Attached, a PG rom-com cheese fest that instantly made viewers dumber for watching. Now comes Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits, basically the same movie as Strings, but with the work “fuck” used more heavily in dialogue. So by my math, Mila and Natalie really wanted to make the same follow-up to Black Swan, but somewhere a casting director blew it. Wouldn’t No Strings Attached have been more interesting with Timberlake at Kutcher as leads making Friends With Benefits the comedic rebuttal and natural progression for Kunis and Portman?
There’s a better joke in there somewhere, but I’m just not the man to find it. Anyways…
Friends With Benefits is a solid romantic comedy. All the beats are there. You know the concept, you know the conflict and it’s pretty obvious how the film is going to end. The fun is seeing how our characters reach each plot point. My problem with FWB is that the writers seemed to use the self-referential humor device as an excuse to execute all the cliches we’ve come to expect from rom-coms. Just because Justin and Mila make fun of sappy/poppy love songs and fairytale fate endings within their dialogue doesn’t give the actual movie we’re watching a pass. One time, OK, maybe it’s cute. But two fucking flashmobs? I’m out. SO 2009! [Again, I maintain that since Scream invented and executed this perfectly, Hollywood writers have gotten lazy.]
Besides only getting a glimpse of Mila’s bare ass, my only other problem with the film was Justin Timberlake. This topic has been covered better elsewhere, but I now think it’s more serious than I originally believed. Justin Timberlake’s fame and prior success make very it hard for him to separate JT from whoever he’s playing on screen. The biggest example of what bugged me with FWB is that his character didn’t know who sang the song “Closing Time” (Semisonic, duh!). I couldn’t get over that in real life, JT must know that jam. His acting just didn’t convince me. Yet on the same level at the opposite end, one of the best scenes is JT dancing and rapping Kris Kross’ “Jump.” Timberlake’s greatest strength is music so how could, on the one hand, writer’s make a key theme that he doesn’t know the name of a band, then on the other hand show him nailing a verse of a nineties rap song? The only solution is that JT pull a DeNiro or Ledger and completely loose himself in his next project to prove his commitment to acting. Gain 50 pounds, do an accent, read a script with no music it in whatever.
Friends With Benefits is funny, but it didn’t make me laugh out loud (LOL!). The best parts are brought on by its supporting cast and other celebrity cameos (Emma Stone: the best; Shawn White: felt forced playing against type). At least this rom-com felt somewhat based in reality. Attractive people have sex, they struggle with relationship labels, they swear, they deal with family issues, they break up and (sometimes) they get back together for a happy ending. All in all, you could do much worse if it’s her turn to pick the movie.
So can we all agree that this movie concept is officially beaten into the ground? No more movies about “friends” hooking up and living happily ever after, OK? Awesome. We’re done here.