Friends with Benefits puts itself in an awkward position early on. It begins by making fun of a bunch of romantic comedy clichés and situations — in particular, it curses Katherine Heigl’s name — and for a while, it appears as if it’ll manage to avoid using these clichés itself. Unfortunately, in the film’s second half, it falls into the trappings that it was previously mocking. I’m almost unsure of how to respond to that. Is the film self-aware, or is it just not as smart or clever as it thinks it is?
The film stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as two young adults who are just being broken up with as we open. They swear off emotional commitment (like George Clooney does, apparently), although they live on different coasts. Luckily, Timberlake’s character, Dylan, is heading for a job interview in New York, and it’s here where he meets Jamie (Kunis), who works as a “headhunter,” someone who recruits people for jobs. She preps him for the interview, the two connect, and Dylan ends up with the job. He moves to New York, and since his only friend is Jamie, the two end up spending a lot of time together.
They insist that they don’t have any feelings for one another, and because they’ve both sworn off feeling anything anyway, they’re not going to enter anything other than a platonic relationship. They both miss sex, however, so they decide to become friends with benefits, staying just friends but having sex every now and then just for fun. They equate it to playing a game of tennis: You don’t cuddle your partner for hours after a match, and sex should be no different.
At least, that’s how they see it. Unfortunately, and I’m sure you’ll be completely surprised by this, it’s not exactly easy to just shut off any emotional attachment to someone. Friends with Benefits eventually brings emotions into the mix, and it gets messy after that point. Characters react in silly, inconsistent ways, appearing as if they’re making up for lost time. There’s only actually a real conflict with about 30 minutes left, and we basically have to have an entire rom-com fit into that period of time.
It doesn’t quite work, which is why I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of short films that also want to be romantic comedies. When you have to go through a certain amount of tropes in order to satisfy the audience, you need a certain amount of time to do it. 30 minutes isn’t enough. While the film probably could have completely subverted the rom-com tropes, the majority of the audience would end up disappointed. While it probably would have resulted in a better film, I can understand why the filmmakers decided to go this route.
There are some enjoyable things in Friends with Benefits. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun for a lot of this film. The first two-thirds are great, and even though the final third wasn’t anywhere close, there are still some funny parts. The dialogue is consistently sharp, which always helps even when the film gets slow. The one-off jokes are the least funny part to me, though, and if many of them had been eliminated, our running time would have been closer to 90 minutes which is always good for a comedy. For instance, Shaun White gets a cameo, and Timberlake gets a one-scene stutter.
Fortunately, some of the long-term jokes work better, like Woody Harrelson appearing as the least stereotypical gay guy in recent memory. He steals every scene he’s in, and it’s almost unfortunate that he wasn’t given more time. Instead, we spend almost all of the scenes with Timberlake and Kunis, who have strong enough chemistry to keep us engaged, but aren’t on Harrelson’s level. Patricia Clarkson also shows up at one point as Jamie’s mother, and the few scenes including her are quite funny.
I got tired of the film after a while, especially near the end. Maybe the first part was just too long, or maybe the romantic comedy clichés that the film earlier mocked were starting to wear on me, but I had trouble finishing Friends with Benefits. I’m thinking that it might even be because two other recent movies, Love and Other Drugs and No Strings Attached, also used the same basic conceit of two friends having casual sex, and they’re all basically the same movie. That’s not the film’s fault, but the studios’ for releasing three similar movies within 12 months of each other. I know there’s saturation in other genres as well, but this is a pretty specific genre to fill up.
There’s a heart in the core of Friends with Benefits, involving both the main characters and their relationship, as well as the one between Dylan and his Alzheimer’s inflicted father (Richard Jenkins). While the father-son dynamic only comes up in the rom-com part of the film, it helps us have something to distract us from the multitude of clichés that come here, and give us something else to latch onto. It’s a sweet story, even if its overall message might be a little more deranged than the filmmakers initially thought.
Friends with Benefits is a mostly funny, sometimes sweet romantic comedy that is overlong and also ends up falling into the same clichés that it begins mocking. It starts off smart and hip, and while it’s witty throughout, the screenplay puts its characters through exactly the same things that they made fun of earlier, which left me wondering what to feel. Still, it’s funny and it has quite a few genuinely enjoyable parts, so if you’re looking for a rom-com to watch, you can do worse than this one.