Thursday, July 21, 2011

'Friends with Benefits' -- and not much else

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis generates some chemistry, but it's mostly wasted in a fizzy, R-rated bauble.
In Friends with Benefits, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis play characters that decide to pursue a no-strings-attached sexual relationship. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you already may have seen No Strings Attached, an Ivan Reitman-directed rom-com with precisely the same premise, but with different stars: Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman.

Timberlake and Kunis are far more appealing than their predecessors, but their movie still feels like a major helping of been-there, done-that – albeit one that’s enlivened by chemistry between Kunis and Timberlake and an R-rated approach to the sex scenes.

Both Timberlake and Kunis have acting cred. Timberlake easily could have received a best-supporting actor nomination for his work in Social Network; Kunis, in another supporting role, did standout work as a ballet dancer in Black Swan.

Here, both actors have been encouraged to keep things light and airy, and Timerlake redeems himself (at least a bit) from the mediocrity of Bad Teacher, a much worse summer comedy. In this outing, he's Dylan, a Los Angeles graphics designer who’s recruited by headhunter Jamie (Kunis) for a major job at GQ magazine.

Once he arrives in Manhattan, Dylan and Jamie become fast friends. The two hit it off; both claim to have no interest in emotional attachment. Dylan proposes that they sleep together, thereby dispensing with the cumbersome baggage that usually accompanies sexual relationships.

From that point on, director Will Gluck (Easy A) follows a conventional rom-com arc, adding extra spice with extended cameos from Patricia Clarkson (as Jamie’s salacious mother); Richard Jenkins (as Dylan’s Alzheimer’s-stricken dad); and Jenna Elfman (as Dylan’s single-mom sister).

The supporting cast seems to be having fun. Wish I could say the same for myself, but Gluck’s mixture of body-worship, glib one-liners, preposterous characters and energetic pacing seems more suited to Bollywood than Hollywood, and a bubble-gum silliness of tone keeps the movie from attaining full-fledged grown-up status.

Friends With Benefits also includes a self-conscious, against-the-grain performance from Woody Harrelson, as Tommy, GQ’s openly gay sports editor. Harrelson, like much of the rest of the movie, seems to be trying way too hard.

If you've seen a ton of current rom-coms, you may be amused by the script's knowing swipes at the whole soggy genre. But little about Friends With Benefits struck me as natural or real, and at times, the movie seemed so committed to its own blithe absurdity that I couldn't help wondering whether it was touched in the head.

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