To steal a gag from David Spade, I liked “Friends with Benefits” better when it was called “No Strings Attached.”
Hollywood often bum rushes a theme for our amusement, from dueling asteroid movies in the ’90s – “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” – to the two upcoming “Snow White” movies.
But the whole casual sex among friends routine practiced in “Strings” earlier this year proves superior to “Friends” despite the presence of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. “Friends” comes across as far too calculated in its R-rated hijinks, forgetting to let the leads’ combined star power shine.
“Friends” casts Timberlake as Dylan, an L.A. based graphic designer lured to the Big Apple by GQ magazine. A perky head hunter named Jamie (Kunis) helps seal the deal, as if Manhattan needed anyone to promote it, and in doing so the pair become chummy. Neither has a significant other, so after a night watching a stale rom-com on TV Dylan comes up with a brilliant idea. They’re both young, attractive and unattached. Why don’t they have sex, like two buds playing tennis to blow off some steam?
They swear on an iPad Bible not to let their emotions get in the way and proceed to comically scope out each other’s erogenous zones. Director Will Gluck (“Easy A”) makes sure to capture their toned bodies without showing any naughty bits.
The sex is great, of course. But their athletic escapades only intensify the feelings they have for each other, even if neither will admit it.
“Friends” routinely drops meta-gags about the sorry state of the modern rom-com, a self-awareness that doesn’t serve the film well. Note to Hollywood – if you’re gonna tweak the genre you’re in, better deliver the goods. And, frankly, “Friends” doesn’t.
The film’s manic screenplay isn’t as witty as it thinks, and all those manufactured bits leave little room for the characters to breathe, let alone fall in love. With apologies to the lads from “Spinal Tap,” not every scene needs to be cranked up to 11.
Dylan’s uber-gay colleague (Woody Harrelson) is one of many in-your-face supporting players suffocating the story. Patricia Clarkson plays the same wacky mom role she turned in for Gluck’s “Easy A.” Even Dylan’s nephew (“Modern Family’s” Nolan Gould) is forced to yuck it up as an aspiring magician.
But they all pale compared to the great Richard Jenkins, doomed to play Dylan’s wacky father who happens to be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. When an R-rated comedy air lifts a dramatic arc like that into the story you know you’re in trouble.
Jenkins’ character is simply one of many plot devices on hand to manufacture the “Love Boat” style finale. The whole film feels as artificial as that TV relic. As soon as a personality tic is mentioned, you know it’ll be churned up as a punch line soon enough. But that’s the whole movie, a series of sitcom-like moments smushed together with little narrative paste.
Both Kunis and Timberlake are attractive and exude charm, but they’re not playing real people as much as products meant to elicit the appropriate response. And what’s with all the stale references, from a running gag about U.S. Airways Captain “Sully” Sullenberger’s heroic plane landing to flash mobs?
Rom-com lovers with very short attention spans might find “Friends with Benefits” worth their while. But if you must enjoy the pleasures of cinematic casual sex, the far better bet remains “No Strings Attached.”
(Photo: Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis play single pals who take their relationship to the next level in “Friends with Benefits.” Screen Gems)