Saturday, 24 September 2011
Thus it was with the year's first 'friends with benefits' feature, the barbarically traditional No Strings Attached. There, the lack of chemistry between Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman made casual sex look deeply unappealing. So I'm glad to pronounce that Justin Timberlake and Portman's fellow Black Swan alumnus Mila Kunis do a much better job in Friends with Benefits.**
Justin Timberlake plays Dylan, a Person of Uncertain Job Description who is headhunted by Jamie (Mila Kunis) to take up a Position of Great Vagueness at GQ in New York. Jamie sells New York on sheer breezy charm, and the two soon become good friends - until, inevitably, they decide to sample the joys of casual sex together. That works well for a while, to the amusement of Jamie's promiscuous mother (Patricia Clarkson) and Dylan's hyper-masculine gay colleague Tommy (Woody Harrelson). Eventually Dylan invites Jamie to visit his family on the west coast, where their friendship is severely tested, leading to much angst.
They reconcile eventually. (Spoiler!) It's that sort of film. But for a long time it looks like it won't be: for its first hour Friends with Benefits is on fire, funny and fresh and, yes, sexy. Kunis and Timberlake have great chemistry, and they've proved their acting skills in Black Swan and The Social Network, respectively. Beautiful young people - oh, and how beautiful they are! - having fun together is quite infectious, and its sheer charm carries the film much of the way. Not to mention that the comic material is crisp, both the raunchy and the more traditional stuff; a recurring gag around Dylan's scepticism towards the 'miracle on the Hudson' gets funnier each time.
It's during the film's second hour that problems begin to crop up. The visit to Dylan's family - including his single-parent sister and a father suffering from Alzheimer's - marks the film's transition from light, breezy comedy to melodrama. It's not a mood that suits the film at all well, and it hardly helps that virtually all the comedy falls on one side of the divide. Nor do I find it believable that Friends with Benefits suddenly wants to provide serious commentary on family, friendships and relationships when the world the characters inhabit is so fantastic: as usual in romantic comedies, everybody is exceedingly well-off and enjoys a one hour work week.
In fact, characters are a bit of a problem for a film: Dylan is much more fleshed out than Jamie, but neither is particularly detailed. Supporting characters are even sketchier: like most rom-com friends Woody Harrelson exists mostly so Dylan has someone to talk to, although at least he has his one-note 'He's gay, but he's a jock! Teh funny!' comic persona. Harrelson carries it off, of course, for he is Woody Harrelson. Patricia Clarkson's character is similarly ill-defined and peripheral, and Bryan Greenberg is saddled with the thankless job of providing a one-dimensional foil to Dylan who is introduced, wreaks havoc, and is forgotten.
But I can't be angry with a film that struggles so mightily against rom-com tropes, even if it is all in vain: where No Strings Attached moved ahead mercilessly on its rails from Meet Cute to True Love, Friends with Benefits makes it clear that the characters are primarily concerned about their friendship, which is not merely treated as a transitional stage to romance. The acknowledgment that life isn't solely defined by the search for the right partner makes Friends with Benefits more interesting than your average cookie cutter chick flick, and helps it transcend its clichéd trappings even if ultimately it cannot escape them.
*Which I have no problem with: heterosexual monogamy doesn't get enough love. The problem is that foreordained endings are boring, and if the notion of 'friends with benefits' is morally unacceptable, it at least has the advantage of not being promoted by every Hollywood film ever.
**Incidentally, Black Swan was surely one of the least sexy films ever made. I don't think Aronofsky has ever portrayed a mutually fulfilling, non-exploitative sexual relationship on screen.