Monday, January 25, 2021

Neglected Gem: Friends with Benefits (2011)

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in Friends with Benefits (2011). (Photo: David Giesbrecht)

The title is a cliché, and there are half a dozen other movies with the same one. But the movie itself, a romantic comedy co-starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, is a charmer with a distinctive voice. Will Gluck made it in 2011, the year after he released Easy A, a startlingly fresh teen comedy that featured one of Emma Stone’s first major roles. Stone plays Olive, a smart, imaginative young woman attending high school in Ojai, California who is overlooked by most of her peers until her best friend (Aly Michalka) insists that she must have lost her virginity while her parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) left her alone for the weekend and, weary of denying it, Olive pretends it’s true. The head of a Christian group (Amanda Bynes) dedicated to preserving their and their classmates’ chastity overhears the conversation and spreads it around, and suddenly Olive finds herself with a scandalous reputation she hasn’t earned. To complicate things, a gay male classmate (Dan Byrd) begs her to pretend she’s gone to bed with him, too, to put an end to the torment he puts up with at school.  Witty and savvy, Easy A is one of the best teen comedies of the last twenty years, and it feels as if Gluck and the screenwriter, Bert V. Royal, have shaped it around their charismatic star.

Perhaps partly because of that standard-issue title, Friends with Benefits didn’t attract much attention when it came out the year after Easy A, but it should have. Watching it the other night for the first time at the suggestion of my Critics At Large colleague Joe Mader, I was hooked in the opening sequence, which intercuts two break-ups that each catch the person on the receiving end off guard. Stone (in a cameo) decides that Timberlake’s Dylan isn’t right for her when he arrives late for a John Mayer concert, while Andy Samberg gives Kunis’s Jamie the air outside a movie theatre screening one of her favorite fairy-tale-romance movies, Pretty Woman. The double kiss-off goes on for much longer than you figure it can sustain itself, and yet the conceit never pales because the dialogue (by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and Gluck) is so good and the performers are so much fun to watch. Samberg is no actor, as anyone who has seen the appalling new Palm Springs can attest to, but his remoteness in contrast to Kunis’s ebullience is amusing, and the other three are flawless.  

The end of his romance is one of the reasons Dylan considers leaving his native L.A. to take a job in Manhattan as art director at GQ. Jamie is the head hunter who secures it for him, and when she takes him out to celebrate they become instant best buddies. Some time later a theoretical discussion, when they’re both imbibing, about the sorrows of closing down their sex lives when a relationship doesn’t work out leads to an experiment: can Jamie and Dylan add physical intimacy to their friendship without incurring the anxiety and disappointment that appear to be the inevitable endpoint of a love affair? In a conventional romantic comedy – It Happened One Night is the blueprint (well, actually, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing set it out more than three centuries earlier) – the male and female protagonists begin in an adversarial relationship that turns to love as they learn to appreciate each other and compromise, and sex (through marriage) is their reward that marks the beginning of their living happily ever after. When Hollywood’s bothersome Production Code finally bit the dust in the sixties there was no longer any need for the hero and heroine to delay sexual satisfaction, but in the good romantic comedies – which these days are few and far between – the structure remains. And so it should: it’s a brilliant metaphor for the way we fall in love and pursue romantic fulfillment. In Friends with Benefits the pleasure they take in sleeping together is one of the ways in which Dylan and Jamie discover that they’re meant for each other. The obstacle is that they’ve done such a good job of convincing themselves that they’re just good friends that when they discover unexpectedly that they’re in love, it makes for considerable confusion – and it brings up, both for Jamie (whose mother is a sexual free spirit) and especially for Dylan (whose mother walked out on his father), so much fear and insecurity that they can’t see straight.

Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits (2011).

Like great romantic melodramas, classic romantic comedies can only work if the two stars are a match – Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner, Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, or in later variants Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Barbra Streisand and George Segal in The Owl and the Pussycat, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride. Kunis and Timberlake are perfect together because though both have bravado and a game, trying-it-out nature, in both cases those features are by fragility, though of different sorts. She gets hurt easily and her face falls apart; he gets scared and pulls away, pretending nothing in the world is wrong. Obviously the screenwriters wrote their parts to underscore the ways in which the two characters overlap and the way their private conflicts screw them up, but the movie wouldn’t work with other actors who don’t possess Kunis and Timberlake’s specific qualities as performers. If this were the 1930s or 40s, the writers at whatever studio was lucky enough to get Justin Timberlake under contract would be sitting up nights dreaming up roles for him. Is there anything this guy can’t do? You watch him in Jonathan Demme’s rockumentary Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids and you think, when is someone going to star him in a musical? He’s as talented a dancer as he is a singer. Then you see him in The Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis and Black Snake Moan and his dramatic (and comic) range is dazzling. I’ve never loved him more than in Friends with Benefits. In the scene where the way Dylan kisses Jamie indicates for the first time that he’s feeling something much deeper than sexual desire, Timberlake’s face is a battleground between wonder and bafflement, need and terror.

One of Timberlake’s most endearing qualities is an inability to fake anything – and a refusal to push. I gave up on Palm Springs after forty minutes – as I often give up on contemporary comedies – because (aside from the fact that it’s an unspeakably dim replay of Groundhog Day) it’s hopelessly tricked up: it keeps insisting on its own hilarity, getting louder and stupider in its determination to make you believe you’re having the time of your life. The movie is like a drunk at a party you can’t shake. Every time one of the actors (usually Andy Samberg) says fuck the word is underlined, as if just the fact of it were uproarious; I found the way the movie treats us like ten-year-olds in a schoolyard embarrassing. When Timberlake curses in Friends with Benefits he does just the opposite: he softens his delivery, just like a gifted Shakespearean actor glides into a famous soliloquy before you can register it. There’s even a lovely running gag about the way Kunis’s Jamie blinks when she swears, because – Dylan figures out – she’s never gotten over her discomfort at talking dirty. The movie contains some of the most refreshing sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie (particularly a comedy) because they’re honest and exploratory and genuinely funny. The writers have given the actors the kind of sex dialogue that is so frank and original it has a cleansing effect – like Dylan’s dilemma when he gets the urge to urinate in the middle of foreplay and he has to explain to Jamie his delay in the bathroom before returning to bed: it’s difficult to pee with an erection.

Jenna Elfman is warm and immensely likable as Dylan’s sympathetic sister Annie, whom Dylan and Jamie visit in California midway through the movie, and Bryan Greenberg does a little something with the thankless small role of the emotionally blank, sexually opportunistic doctor Jamie meets in Central Park and has a few dates with. Patricia Clarkson – she and Stanley Tucci are two of the incidental treats of Easy A – isn’t right for the part of Jamie’s mother, but it’s fun to watch her throw herself into it, and she’s such a terrific actor. The oddball casting of Woody Harrelson as the gay sports editor at GQ is part of the reason his scenes work so well; the other part is Harrelson, who simply transfers his grinning horndog quality from the voracious hetero characters he usually plays. And Richard Jenkins gives a heartfelt performance as Dylan and Annie’s father, whose Alzheimer’s is starting to kick in. It isn’t a great idea to have a character with dementia deliver the carpe diem speech near the end of the movie, and in truth the screenwriters run out of ideas in the last fifteen minutes. (The finale is almost as much of a platitude as the title.) But Jenkins is so good he rescues the movie’s dying fall. What precedes it doesn’t require rescuing.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.    

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