Friends With Benefits (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Let's get this out of the way: The only thing that Friends With Benefits and the Ashton Kutcher-Natalie Portman flick No Strings Attached have in common is that they're both romantic comedies about friendships with casual sex. In terms of supporting characters, plot details and, yes, success as a movie, the two are notably different.
No Strings Attached, released this past January, is a better, funnier film, whereas Friends With Benefits has some amusing moments before getting bogged down with a serious tone.
Fresh off a breakup, Dylan (Justin Timberlake) flies from Los Angeles to New York City for a job interview. At the airport he's greeted by Jamie (Mila Kunis), the corporate headhunter who got him the interview, and the two immediately hit it off. "I'm going to change your life," she tells him, in the year's most obvious line-with-a-double-meaning, and indeed she does. She sells him on NYC, he takes the job, and a beautiful, platonic friendship is born.
All is well until they watch a tacky romantic comedy together and ask why relationships have to be so complicated. They then swear on an iPad Bible that they'll have "no relationship, no emotions, just sex" and vow to remain friends no matter what. Yeah, right.
Director Will Gluck's (Easy A) film is at its best when Dylan and Jamie are trading barbs and hooking up — their chemistry feels real, and there are good laughs to enjoy. Timberlake holds the screen adequately as a co-lead, but he's also helped greatly by Kunis' presence, timing and experience. His future as an actor remains bright but unproven.
If the story stayed focused on comedy, Timberlake would've been better off, but unfortunately Dylan and Jamie's inevitable fight nearly turns the film into a Nicholas Sparks drama. It gets so heavy that we stop laughing and start rolling our eyes, waiting, begging for it to end.
Aside from the love-hate relationship drama, which we expect, there's also mental illness and dysfunctional family drama, which we neither expect nor want. Jamie's mom (Patricia Clarkson) is an unreliable floozy who doesn't know who Jamie's father is; Dylan's father (Richard Jenkins) has Alzheimer's; his sister (Jenna Elfman) is a single parent to young Sam (Nolan Gould). Where did all the laughs go?
Worse, some of the comedy that is written into the script just doesn't connect. Timberlake singing Kris Kross' 1992 hit "Jump" is no doubt funnier on paper than in execution, as is having Olympic snowboard gold medalist Shaun White show up in a cameo, in which he's a jerk to Dylan. ("Ha! That Shaun White is cool for making fun of himself," we're supposed to say.)
What's also sad is that Friends With Benefits tries to make fun of rom-com conventions and then subvert them, but then ends up in the same place that all rom-coms end up. It's a nice idea, but when you veer too far off course, everything is bound to crumble, and it does.