Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's Not a Romance / It's Totally a Romance: FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS

Friends with Benefits is a self-loathing romantic comedy, all too ready to hit all the required beats of the genre while almost all the while protesting every one of them. It stars a relaxed, lovable Mila Kunis and a tense, confident Justin Timberlake as young urban professionals and new friends who decide to skip dating and go straight for the bedroom. It’s not that they don’t like each other, far from it. They’re totally in love. They just pretend that what they’re having isn’t a relationship. It’s only casual because that’s what they tell themselves, much like the movie is only not a romantic comedy because it pretends not to notice its own boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl structure.

As the plot creaks through its predictable paces, it finds some occasional patches of effective humor and a few spots of legitimately button-pushing edginess. At times it is capable of living up to its potential frankness, though it often scurries away or buries its insight in juvenile giggling. But as the superficial daring of the film wears thin, I found myself asking why this film is so concerned with not coming off as a romantic comedy. After all, if it managed a few more laughs and a sweeter payoff, it could actually be a good rom-com, a rare feat these days. To paraphrase Godard, a great way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. How better to criticize the recent drought of rom-coms than to make a good one?

Earlier this year, the similarly themed comedy No Strings Attached approached the same topic from a safer, sappier angle and yet by embracing the genre it managed to find its small charms. The couple in that film (Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher) knew they were falling in love, that they were in a relationship, but even if they tried to hide it, the movie didn’t try too hard to deny it. It was a charmingly modest movie. Friends with Benefits finds a far more charming couple, more believably attracted to one another, and yet strands them in a less charming film, emotionally far behind what we in the audience already suspect and realize. These two good-looking people with the comfortable chemistry, twinkly eyes, and quick, easy smiles, love each other and care about each other and it’s completely obvious where the rigid formula of the film will take them. It feels like it takes forever for the characters to catch up to us.

Will Gluck directs the film which he wrote with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman. He brought us last year’s hilarious Easy A, but this film feels looser and slacker yet smaller. It’s filled with a terrific supporting cast, but they’re each given exactly one trait to play. If the one trait doesn’t work for you, you’re out of luck. It’s an ensemble in search of memorable moments that never materialize. Patricia Clarkson is Kunis’s wacky mom who, get this, is still seeing a lot of men. At her age? The movie finds this almost unbelievable. Jenna Elfman is Timberlake’s sister who is kind and supporting. Richard Jenkins (great, as always) is Timberlake’s father, still wise, despite suffering from Alzheimer’s. As for poor Woody Harrelson, he plays a gay sports editor and the film treats that as a big joke in and of itself and aggressively pursues any opportunity to make it one. If he has a line that doesn’t mention his sexual orientation I missed it.

Ultimately this is a film torn between its impulses towards sweetness and edginess and ends up satisfying neither. It’s a film that wants to get laughs from sex, but also earnest uplift from sap like flash mobs. It lacks a tone nimble enough to pivot between those emotions, which is just as well since it lacks a script worthy of it. The cast is game, Gluck’s direction is often energetic, but the self-deluded picture lacks the zip and skill of its ambition to tear down convention while blindly inhabiting it. From time to time it’s an adequate romantic comedy, but why’s it so unhappy about it?

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