Friends With Benefits Dir. Will Gluck

[Sony Pictures; 2011]

Styles: romcom
Others: Black Swan, No Strings Attached, When Harry Met Sally

Does anyone else think it’s weird that after Black Swan both Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis have rivaling romantic comedies on the same topic coming out within mere months of each other? The films have almost identical premises, and their titles are more or less coin-flips of each other. Each actress plays basically the same role, but Portman’s is somewhat joyless, awkward, and stiff, while Kunis’ is effortless, sassy, and charming. Did Aronofsky set this up as some kind of art-imitating-life-imitating-art vortex? Was it that Swan was so affecting for both actresses that they felt compelled to continue their Dance of the Nemeses on into the metabyss? Do you think Portman’s going to freak out and stab… someone?

But about Friends with Benefits. Here is the surprising news: it’s actually funny some of the time, and there are actual sex scenes, including oral! What’s better, the movie has, for the most part, its tongue in its cheek about romantic clichés throughout the twists and turns of a friends-with-benefits relationship that we know from the opening credits is going to morph into a relationship-relationship. Filmic self-awareness is one of the keys to making this movie infinitely more watchable than its doppelganger. (Yes, okay, I’m referring to No Strings Attached.) Although Kunis’ fast-talking, savvy New Yorker Jamie announces up front that she believes in romantic love (she wants to find her “Prince Charming”), she presents it almost as a confession of weakness or something she doesn’t want anymore — kind of how you might admit that you still like to watch Full House (OMG loooove that show!!1). It’s this up-front acknowledgement of our conflicted emotions on the topic of love — you can want it and be completely cynical about it — that allows Jamie and her friend/bedfellow Dylan (a once again very competent Justin Timberlake) to navigate a frank, brass tacks sexual partnership, a more and more close friendship, and the allegedly inevitable burgeoning of romantic cuddly feelings, without insulting our intelligence too much. What is also nice is that, although the movie seems at first glance to heavily imply that women are the ones who are incapable of having sex with men they like without getting all emotional about it, it actually shows in the end that both genders have that same tendency, regardless of what your gay GQ sports editor friend might say (Woody Harrelson with some otherwise pretty decent jokes).

The other key to this movie’s actually being enjoyable is giving real emotional depth and background to its leads. Jamie, who is labeled “emotionally damaged” by her ex (slightly goofy cameo by Andy Samberg), and Dylan, who is labeled “emotionally distant” by his ex (goofier cameo by Emma Stone), both, in a refreshing portrayal of reality, take their semi-apropos labels as gospel because they were pigeonholed that way by people they were romantically involved with. Thus: the drive to do something different for once, something mutually convenient like a sexual relationship devoid of those pesky aforementioned emotions. As it turns out, neither character is really all that damaged, despite what they might believe about themselves, a fairly accurate depiction of people who have a moderate amount of baggage. Jamie’s mom (Patricia Clarkson) is slutty and can’t tell Jamie exactly who her dad is; Dylan’s mom ditched the family, and his dad (the always convincing Richard Jenkins) now has rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s. Considering these hurdles, both Jamie and Dylan are rather well-adjusted. What you come to realize, and what they figure out, too, is that a little baggage is fine as long as you actually like the person you’re with.

That’s another major difference between this movie and its evil twin. Here, the characters begin as friends and decide to become lovers afterwards, while in Strings, they begin as lovers and one person freaks out because she can’t handle commitment, sparking a forced sex-only relationship that refuses to acknowledge feelings. For Jamie and Dylan, the baggage is something that’s discussed up front, between friends. For the other couple, it’s shoved down and denied until it roils to the surface, without any real foundation of trust or support to pick up the slack. In other words, Friends has emotional baggage, and Strings has actual neurosis. One is much better suited to a romantic comedy, believe it or not. It’s true that while Friends with Benefits has its tongue in its cheek, it still upholds the Hollywood propaganda that it pokes fun at. Music that tells us how to feel, grand romantic gestures that never happen in real life (like organizing a flash mob to dance to “your” song), ending the story right when the characters get together in that “okay, people, nothing more to see here” sort of way, etc. But the movie is always paying attention to that conflict, and even when it contradicts itself, you get the feeling that you’re being winked at. After all, it’s okay that you still watch Full House, as long as you realize that it’s super dumb.

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