July 21, 2011




FRIENDS WITH BENEFITSWorth A Ticket:  Almost Great


For about an hour, as you watch his new FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS, you could be forgiven for thinking that writer-director Will Gluck is the future of Hollywood romantic comedy.  Gluck came out of TV with the very underrated Fired Up, about a pair of college guys who dress up as female cheerleaders to get girls (I’m serious–watch it on video), and then he had his break-out with last year’s terrific Easy AFriends With Benefits seems to be well on its way to building on this with an unusually smart, funny romance–until it isn’t.


As everyone knows by now, Friends shares its premise with No Strings Attached, the very lame comedy that rode Natalie Portman’s concurrent Black Swan stardom to a $71M gross ($148M worldwide) earlier this year.  In both, a couple that isn’t romantically involved decides for the sake of convenience to get together for sex, with the idea that they’ll be able to keep it separate from any emotional entanglement.  Of course, in both cases that’s not the way it plays out.

The dreary thing–OK, one of the dreary things–about Strings was that it never really honored its own premise:  from the start, it was clear that Ashton Kutcher’s character had a puppydog crush on Portman’s, so the story became a matter of waiting for Portman to be willing to accept emotional commitment and open herself to Kutcher’s love.  The script had to come up with psychological issues for Portman to triumph over, and there was hardly any fun to be had in the movie at all.  (Not to mention that it was almost stubbornly devoid of laughs.


Friends With Benefits, in contrast, delivers on its initial idea.  Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is a magazine designer from LA headhunted for a NY job by Jamie (Mila Kunis).  He’s new in town, they’re both busy people who’ve recently been dumped, and they strike up a friendship–then decide that the sensible thing to do is add purely physical sex to the equation, since neither wants to be in a real relationship.  Of course, even while they’re denouncing the cliches of romantic comedy (Kunis has a great bit attacking Katherine Heigl movies, and there’s even a film-within-the-film that features Jason Segal and Rashida Jones), the two of them are falling for each other, and it doesn’t take a prophet to figure out where it’s going to end up.  What makes Friends work for quite a while is the very quirky, genial, appealing script by Gluck, Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, which has the kind of old-fashioned snappy banter that nowadays is rare outside of an Aaron Sorkin project.

It also helps that Timberlake and Kunis actually seem to like each other, and they have real screen chemistry together; it’s a relief to watch a big-screen romance where neither of the characters is an idiot, a doofus or a selfish creep with a heart of gold.  Timberlake’s been kicking around with his film career for several years now, and he was excellent in The Social Network, but Friends is his first genuine leading man role, and he handles it like a veteran, smoothly hitting all the laughs and carrying off the more dramatic moments.  Kunis, too, has been on the brink of breaking out since she moved over from TV, and she makes a hugely appealing, sexy and often hilarious lead.  Gluck is a casting whiz, and like Easy A, Friends is also loaded with fabulous supporting actors:  Woody Harrelson, Andy Samberg, Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, and Easy A‘s own Emma Stone and Patricia Clarkson all make appearances.

So how does it all go wrong?  Gluck and his co-writers can’t manage to stick the landing.  After being intelligent and witty and charming for more than an hour, easily convincing us that these two smart people would ultimately figure out that they’re made for each other and fall into each other’s arms, the script invents melodramatic and unnecessary plot turns to push them together, then break them up, and of course reunite them.  The last reel is cluttered with “call-backs” that repeat scenes and motifs from earlier in the movie in a grindingly obvious way.  Jenkins is forced to more or less replay his role from Dear John, as the movie recycles one of the lousiest recent movie cliches:  the Alzheimer’s patient who manages to reach lucidity just long enough to impart some parental wisdom.  Timberlake and Kunis suddenly act in ways inconsistent with their behavior earlier in the movie, just to keep the plot’s wheels turning.  By pandering to exactly the same rom-com conventions they ridiculed earlier, Gluck and his team drive their project straight into a wall.

It’s sad to watch, because once you’re on a movie’s side, the last thing you want is to have the filmmakers wrench it away.  And even with its missteps, Friends With Benefits is still worth seeing, the first two-thirds are the most likable comedy of the summer.  It’s jsut that when things get bogged down, you might want to consider checking out the next auditorium at the multiplex and watching the giant robots destroy Chicago; it’s less painful than watching Friends With Benefits destroy itself.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."