Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rom-Com Merry Go Round

Back in January, I reviewed a romantic comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman called No Strings Attached. In the film, two friends decide to cast aside the emotional baggage of relationships and focus on the sexual gratification aspect with one another. No matter what happened, they would keep love out of the equation, and remain friends. Well, guess what? It didn't work then and it doesn't work in Friends with Benefits either, to nobody's surprise. Directed by Easy A's Will Gluck, Friends at least looks better than No Strings Attached on paper. While the earlier-released film has arguably the bigger star power (with the eventual Oscar winner Portman leading the charge), the overall production of Friends came off much more nicely in previews. This was thanks not only to the seemingly natural chemistry between stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, but hilarious R-rated scenes featuring Woody Harrelson and Patricia Clarkson. Though their themes would seem to be the same, I was expecting a better total film when I walked into the theaters to check out the newest of the new releases this past week. If at its worst it was still better than No String Attached, it could well be considered a success.

The closest Timberlake will ever be to a real woman?
When young headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis) successfully convinces indie journalist Dylan (Justin Timberlake) to take a groundbreaking job at GQ, the two fast become good friends. With Dylan adjusting to the pressures of leaving his family behind in Los Angeles to endure the rigors of New York City, Jamie becomes his constant anchor. Both are recovering from major relationship breakups, and while they don't want to become boyfriend/girlfriend with the other, they DO miss sexual intercourse. Like, a LOT. So they decide to make a pact; no emotional attachment, no jealousy, just sex. Oh, and no matter what happens, the two remain friends. That lasts for a while, but as things continue, they begin to grow together, and before you can shout that you saw it coming from the opening credits, the two fall in love. But with their relationship history, is this unlikely pairing even possible in the long-term?

Yup, she's helping!
While the story in Friends with Benefits is at least well told, one major misstep is that it ridicules the romantic comedy genre while at the same time committing all its cardinal acts. Characters shouting that true love is a farce pretty much guarantees that true love is what they'll find, and no amount of attempted diversions will make the audience believe otherwise. This is surprising considering how unique and few retread steps adorned director Gluck's last film, Easy A. Other rote rom-com trends include gay best friends, parent-child relationship issues, and one character suffering from an illness that many of us know about but not too many people have to live with. It's depressing how such an up-front idea (casual sex) might have added to the genre had it not merely been made into a set piece, and a poor one at that. There's already been a better casual sex comedy released, but I won't be getting to Crazy, Stupid, Love until next week.

Let the vigorous humping begin
The acting is quite good, but to be honest I wasn't as enamoured with the leading couple as I'd hoped I would be. My criticism with Timberlake is the same as with most of his film roles: all style, no substance. He's portrayed as being just like most of us, a down-to-earth guy who cares about all the right things. The problem with this is that it's not a person, it's a character, and Timberlake doesn't have the acting chops to make it more than that. Sure, he can trade barbs in a charming manner with Kunis, but that's about the highest peak of his prowess in front of the camera thus far. Kunis is by far the better of the main couple, though it would still be a stretch of imagine her as anything other than a slightly older and more mature Jackie Burhart from That 70's Show. It would be obvious that the role was written for her even if the director hadn't admitted to it anyway, and it's too bad, since I think she has some actual talent and hasn't really had an opportunity to showcase it beyond 2010's Black Swan. The duo have some chemistry, but not enough to make the audience stand up and take notice. That's why it's a relief that the supporting cast is much better than the two leads in terms of stealing the spotlight. Woody Harrelson gets the most laughs as GQ's homosexual sports editor who plays the role of romantic advisor to Dylan. Every like he utters is a hoot; it's just a shame they're all in the trailer. Patricia Clarkson is also a joy to see on screen, though it would be fair to say her role here pales in comparison to her part in Easy A. Playing Jamie's sexually-adventurous mother, Clarkson doesn't get nearly as much attention as perhaps she deserves, but does the best with what she can, which includes some truly hilarious and outrageous settings. And Richard Jenkins once again almost steals the show in his scenes as Dylan's father. Honestly, the film could have focused on these three characters and been so much better, but sadly that was not to be.

"Awww" moments are thankfully few and far between
But these acting performances do not save Friends with Benefits from itself. The funniest and best scenes from the film are covered by the trailers, the story has been done to death a billion times before, we really aren't compelled to root for these two lead characters to defy the expectations and get together. Throw in tons of obvious product placement, unfocused and unnecessary use of pop culture references like Olympic snowboarder Shaun White and flash mobs, and the fact that the film quickly becomes the monster it at first decries, and liking this film should not even be an option. Plenty of charm and some good bits do elevate it slightly higher than No Strings Attached, but not by as much as you would think. If you really want to see a sweet, engaging romantic comedy, do yourself a favor and see Crazy, Stupid, Love. Now THERE'S a film worth your hard-earned money.

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