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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 15, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 28
Frustrating Friends offers few benefits
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Frustrating Friends offers few benefits

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Friends With Benefits
Opening July 22


I want to like Friends With Benefits a heck of a lot more than I actually do. The first half of the film is foul-mouthed, engaging, and funny. It sets up two characters who, while both slightly on the unbelievable side, I liked spending time with. It is agreeably acted by stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, both showcasing an effortless chemistry that's enchanting. In short, director Will Gluck (Easy A, Fired Up) and his team of screenwriters get a lot of things right, generating so much good will in such a short amount of time it would seem on the surface nothing could derail the picture's eventual success.

Wrong. The final third of the movie is a maudlin, irritating, and, worst of all, slow-moving bore. It dips way too far into cheap sentimentality and then starts reveling in all of the standard romantic comedy clich├ęs it has up to then brazenly been wagging its middle finger at. It becomes tiresome and annoying, throwing away all that was fresh and lively and supplanting it with dramatics so ripe One Tree Hill or Gossip Girl wouldn't use them. The movie doesn't just derail, it explodes, and the aftermath is so dumbfounding and noxious that part of me still can't believe this disastrous turn of events actually took place.

Things really do start out marvelously, though. The set-up revolves around Los Angeles editorial whiz-kid Dylan (Timberlake) coming to New York at the bequest of pesky corporate headhunter Jamie (Kunis) to interview for a high-profile job at GQ. The two hit it off instantly, becoming fast friends as the former settles into his new position while the latter tries to make his transition to living in the Big Apple easier.

At some point both reveal to the other the disastrous nature of their respective recent break-ups, waxing poetic about how nice it would be to be able to get sexually intimate with someone and not have to worry about a little thing like a relationship. One thing leads to another, and the next thing Dylan and Jamie know, they're knocking boots, each insisting that the other refrain from feeling emotion and that these physical acts won't do a darn thing to hurt their budding friendship.

If this sounds familiar, that's because No Strings Attached with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher basically followed the same scenario just this past January. But while this one boasts better star pairing, and while the first half offers up way more laughs than that Ivan Reitman farce did, it can't maintain its energy and falls off a maudlin, melodramatic cliff while No Strings Attached managed to stay the course. The earlier effort may not have been perfect, but it entertained from start to finish - something Gluck's latest does not do.

You can see the seeds of this one's self-destruction coming. Patricia Clarkson first shows up essentially portraying the exact same character she did in the director's Easy A. Next, a subplot is introduced featuring Dylan's older sister and his aging father (played by Jenna Elfman and Richard Jenkins, respectively) back in Los Angeles. As these new narrative strands blossom, the energy pulsating between Timberlake and Kunis sadly begins to die, and the movie's lifeblood slowly drains away. Soon, all we're left with are bits of soapy melodrama and turgid fluff I couldn't have cared less about, and everything leads to a hackneyed conclusion that's forced, false, and frustrating.

What makes it worse is that every actor here, every single one of them (including Woody Harrelson, playing the Gay sports editor for the magazine in a characterization I can't quite decide if I should find offensive or brilliant), is wonderful. Elfman hasn't been this good in ages, and while Clarkson may be going through the motions, that doesn't mean she's going through them without panache. As for Jenkins, he easily has the most thankless part in the entire film, yet still goes out of his way to try and make something winning out of it, coming extremely close to doing so, only to be undone by the saccharine dialogue he's forced to say and the stilted pacing of the climactic act.

Gluck is a talented guy, and I like that he makes ribald, free-spirited comedies that attempt to mix smarts and silliness in almost equal measure. But with Friends With Benefits, he just can't find a consistent enough tone and can't seem to get a handle on the dramatic elements of the last third in the same way last summer's Going the Distance did with such relative ease. There is a pointed solemnity to the last half-hour that's frankly out of place and makes the events surrounding Dylan and Jamie's final reconciliation not especially interesting. The film squanders its early potential and strands its talented stars in a mire not of their own creation, and the early sexual energy becomes nothing more than ashes.

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