Romantic comedies tend to be lousy. This is a given that director Will Gluck’s Friends with Benefits uses to its advantage. It revels in poking fun at the formula that of course it won’t be able to avoid: pretty people fall in love, trouble ensues, and all is resolved in a way that never happens to you. The latest, and most charming, of a string of no-strings-attached spins on the rom-com, Friends with Benefits even features a pretend movie within the movie, starring (in uncredited cameos) a fat Jason Segel and a deliberately insipid Rashida Jones, exemplifying exactly the kind of saccharine love story that Friends with Benefits is trying to be better than yet still provides the inspiration for the climax.
Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is the art director for a popular website based in Los Angeles, where his father (Richard Jenkins) and sister (Jenna Elfman) live. He is lured to Manhattan by a headhunter, Jamie (Mila Kunis), who has been hired to recruit an art director for Gentleman’s Quarterly. (And you thought they just consulted the rest of the media elite when making such decisions.) Both of them are freshly dumped — Dylan by a girlfriend (Emma Stone, the star of Gluck’s Easy A) who accuses him of being emotionally unavailable, Jamie by a dude (Andy Samberg, Timberlake’s partner from the SNL short “Dick in a Box”) who says she’s emotionally damaged. While Dylan and Jamie have instant sparks, they opt not to get involved. Instead they make a weird pact to just service each other without letting romance intervene, as did Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in January’s No Strings Attached.
They arrive at this decision after watching the fake Segel-Jones movie together. Jamie can mouth the lines to this cherished love story but wonders why no one ever makes a movie about what happens after the first kiss. “They do,” retorts Dylan. “It’s called porn.” Considering how much time Timberlake and Kunis spend hovering on top of and between each other’s lovely limbs, there’s definitely something of the soft porn appeal to Friends with Benefits. They have raunchy, frank conversations about sex, and though there are more carefully tangled sheets in this movie than in any normal bedroom, the imperfect but steadily improving sex they have is about as close to realistic as a Hollywood romantic comedy ever gets.
Hollywood could be the third billed star of Friends with Benefits, even with Woody Harrelson hamming it up as GQ‘s kinda-gross horny gay sports editor. It’s present as both place (on a visit to Los Angeles, Dylan and Jamie climb the Hollywood sign together) and concept (it hangs over these young people, shaping not only their closely held romantic fantasies but also their cynicism, their won’t-get-fooled-again attitudes). Old movies like On the Waterfront and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice play on screens in the background. There are references to Nora Ephron, Harry Potter, Seinfeld and Will & Grace as well as some swipes at the novels of Nicholas Sparks, Katherine Heigl’s movie career and George Clooney’s commitment issues. Jamie and Dylan inhabit an intensely pop-culture-centric, tech-savvy world; when they make their no-love lovemaking pact, they do it on her singing Bible app. Timberlake bursts into apt parodies of 90s songs on multiple occasions, reminding you that before he was an actor, he was a song and dance man.
All this self-referential, intensely of-the-moment business nearly overpowers the movie’s emotional side. My hunch is that when Gluck rewatches this movie in 10 years, he’ll ask himself, Why did I clutter things up by casting that red-haired snowboarding kid Shaun White? Playing himself, White takes you out of the mood of the love story. So does the cinematography. Kunis is lit as if it were always magic hour, Timberlake as if it were a dewy morning, even when they’re standing right next to each other. And the camera is so up in their faces, you start to feel an aesthetician’s urge to go to work.
The screenplay, with credits shared by Gluck, Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, is predictable, plotwise. But it is elevated by energetic dialogue, the sexual chemistry between the leads and the fact that the miscommunication that keeps bliss at bay — there’s always one in a rom-com, and usually it is annoyingly unbelievable — is plausible. The lithe Kunis, all tough girl talk and tawny eyes, is 10 times more interesting than a Heigl or a Hudson. Timberlake looks a little lost when it comes to the movie’s dramatic contrivance of Dylan’s dad’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, but he is an absolutely adroit comedian. There’s a scene in which Jamie reassures Dylan that she’ll be fine spending the Fourth of July alone. Impatiently, he tells her he knows that she’ll be physically fine: “You’re not a baby in a hot car.” It takes someone either really fast on his feet or super cute to get away with a joke that dark and tasteless. In Timberlake’s case, it’s both.