Friday, 26 August 2011

Film Review: Friends With Benefits

Friends With Benefits is the second film this year about fuck buddies. Following in the footsteps of No Strings Attached, there seems to be a shift in direction for rom-coms in this post-modern era where the done thing is to mock the traditional format's enshrined conventions. And yet everything it tries to do for reinventing the genre all inevitably comes full circle when you realise that, hang on a second, this is a rom-com.

Dylan (Timberlake) is a successful web designer based in LA recently dumped by his girlfriend on account of being too emotionally unavailable. Jamie (Kunis) is a corporate headhunter in New York, also recently dumped for being "damaged" and having a too idealistic view of love. Both vowing henceforth to act like George Clooney in a bid to not get hurt next time round, the two meet when Jamie sets Dylan up for an interview at GQ magazine. The disillusioned couple become friends and soon hitch upon a plan to service each other without any of those pesky emotions getting involved.

Friends With Benefits ultimately falls foul of the same serendipitously cliched trap Hollywood lays for all its rom-coms. It must follow the formula where one person expresses unreciprocated love, only for the other person to realise they've made a huge mistake whereby the third act they kiss and make up through some grand gesture at an iconic location. There's only one manner in which a film of this nature will be allowed to end, and that's where everything is resolved in a way that will never happen to you. That's not to say that Friends With Benefits isn't fun, but for all it does to profess its difference it eventually succumbs to the same cliches and consequently feels a little hypocritical. Indeed, it goes great lengths to scorning rom-com norms, even inserting a little mock film featuring Jason Segel which rips on every shibboleth used in the genre. Of course this movie wouldn't really work if Dylan and Jamie did their business and went their separate ways at the end, no harm done. Those irksome things called emotions have to get in the way and send their initial agreement down shit creek without a paddle. Consequently it means the characters become slaves to the stereotypes they seek to smash whereby the end was never really in doubt.

But! And yes there is a but! Friends With Benefits has a spark which is much to do with its fantastic cast and script. Timberlake for one seems to be carving out quite a name for himself as an actor, turning out decent performances in The Social Network and Bad Teacher. He's equally adept at Dylan, a slightly effeminate meterosexual with intimacy issues. Kunis also glimmers as an insecure old romantic looking for the same true love shown in the very films she mocks. The banter between the two is sharp. You know when you look back on a moment and you think "fuck, that's what I should have said"? Well, these two cats will say the right thing at the right time without fail. Indeed, Timberlake and Kunis' chemistry add a vitality to proceedings which sets this film apart from the other mush in the genre. You just enjoy watching them, and that's almost enough. The supporting cast are also fantastic. Woody Harrelson is superb as Tommy, a vivaciously gay colleague who offers Dylan the chance to join him and "troll for cock". Likewise, Patricia Clarkson steals more than a scene as Jamie's alcoholic, free-loving Mum while Jenna Elfman is perfect as Dylan's world-weary sister. However, the quietly understated role of Dylan's Alzheimers afflicted father, played by Richard Jenkins, is pure gold. In his lucid moments Mr. Harper grounds proceedings by offering his pearls of wisdom. In his not-so-lucid moments he's running about with his trousers round his ankles.

While Friends With Benefits doesn't add anything new to the genre but it still manages to make this overused formula entertaining. The cast is excellent as is the onscreen chemistry. It's cute and enjoyable (if these things don't already sicken you) and a hell of a lot better than this year's earlier attempt, No Strings Attached. Timberlake and Kunis bring a glib, relaxed aura, never taking themselves too seriously which only makes them more likeable. They just do it better than Kutcher and Portman. If No Strings Attached were the missionary position, Friends With Benefits is the Kama Sutra.