Friends with Benefits: An Unconventional Romantic Comedy?

Friends with Benefits is a movie that wants to make sure you don’t overthink it. Because you might be distracted by these things, let’s just start from the premise that every young person in New York City has an awesome apartment, is at the top of their game career-wise, and is attractive, wealthy, and charming. Well, everyone except Andy Samberg (in a cameo role) who, in this land of make-believe, is both attractive enough to be dating a girl like Mila Kunis, and is enough of a jerk to dump her. But there I go, overthinking things already.

At the center of this romantic comedy are Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis), who are brought together when she recruits him to a job at GQ Magazine. Both of these smart, sexy young professionals have recently been ditched by their significant others (played by Samberg and Emma Stone, my girl crush of the moment), and both are accused of being emotionally damaged. The trajectory of their relationship is so predictable that it’s barely worth mentioning: Boy meets girl, boy and girl become friends with benefits, feelings get hurt, boy and girl struggle to work things out. The story, and the characters themselves, could have been downright tedious if not for the performances of Kunis and Timberlake, who are so darn likeable and nice to look at. The latter is particularly important, since the movie demonstrates their chemistry with sex scene after sex scene. Folks, this is not the movie to go to with Grandma. At any rate, I found that the story of Jamie and Dylan was ultimately not as interesting to me as were the other relationships taking place around it.

Friends with Benefits

Are friends supposed to watch movies together in their underwear? Because, if so, I've been doing this totally wrong.

As the film develops, it becomes clear that both Dylan and Jamie are victims of Disney Mom syndrome—mothers who are either absent or who stick around just to make their children’s lives miserable. Jamie’s mom, Lorna, played by Patricia Clarkson, is meant to be likeable, but she totally backfired for me as a character. She tries too hard to be cool and free-loving, but also doesn’t hesitate to drop her daughter like a hot potato and go chasing after a man. This, only to return at the end of the movie to claim responsibility for screwing up her daughter’s life and attempt to appeal to the sympathies of both Jamie and the audience. Aside from being a mooch and ditching out on holiday plans with her daughter, it also bothered me intensely that Lorna constantly makes up stories for Jamie about who her father is. I am all for the character of a strong single mother, but it seems deliberately cruel of Lorna to constantly offer made-up stories and misdirection when it is clear all along that she knows perfectly well who her daughter’s dad is, and that Jamie genuinely wants to know. I get that Lorna doesn’t want to confront this past romantic failure, but isn’t there a right-to-know issue here that outweighs mom’s baggage? On the other side, Dylan’s mother is totally absent, and we are told that she “abandoned” her children and her ailing ex-husband years earlier. Herein lies the reason for Dylan’s emotional shutdown. Fair enough, but it bugged me that only in the last few minutes of the film is it revealed that she may have, in fact, had her reasons for leaving Dylan’s father.

Dylan’s sister Annie (Jenna Elfman) was another character who didn’t work for me. She seems like a good mom to her son Sam (other than, you know, letting him play with fire), but she never really develops as a character. She seems to have no life aside from caring for Sam and her father (Richard Jenkins), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She also seems remarkably sanguine about her lot in life, unbothered by her playboy brother’s decision to run off and leave her with caretaking duties and even taking time out to give Dylan sage advice on relationships, as if that were the most important thing she has to do in a day. Then again, she lives in an awesome house, too, so maybe that makes up for it. Don’t overthink it!

There are several elements of the movie that I liked. Jenkins’ portrayal of a father struggling with Alzheimer’s disease was well-done and felt real, as did the family’s uncomfortable, exasperated, and sometimes fearful reaction to his condition. Woody Harrelson as Tommy, Dylan’s gay co-worker, was also nicely handled, in a role that could easily have strayed too far into stereotypes. There is a running gag throughout of Tommy asking Dylan, “Are you sure you’re not gay?” which culminates in a nice scene where Tommy confronts Dylan with a line-up of attractive, nearly nude male models at a photo shoot and gets him to admit that he is “a little bit gay.” Nice to see a straight man admit his attraction to other males in a way that was nonthreatening and didn’t undermine the character. Finally, the movie presented what I felt to be a fair balance of male and female nudity in its many (many) sex scenes, which was refreshing.

Overall, though, Friends with Benefits ultimately feels like a cop-out, buying into the very clichés that it mocks in other romantic comedies. Jamie’s mother convinces her that she needs to re-think her idea of romance and Prince Charming, but luckily that introspection is short-lived as Dylan returns about that time with a romantic, Prince Charming-esque gesture to win her back. So what’s the real message? That seems to be another point we’re not meant to overthink. Grand gestures make for good theater, but this happy ending felt no more realistic to me than Jason Segel and Rashida Jones riding off down a fake New York street in the rom-com movie-within-the-movie. Friends with Benefits was good entertainment and gave me some genuine laughs, but as a film aspiring to break the traditional romantic comedy mold, it misses the mark.

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