[22 July 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
If you were wondering about an upside to Alzheimer’s, Friends With Benefits has found one. As Mr. Harper (Richard Jenkins) explains it to his son Dylan (Justin Timberlake), he’s learned a lesson as he’s begun struggling with the disease: it’s important to make the most out of each moment, not to waste time being proud or stupid or mean. The primary example he has in mind is the one most suited for the movie he and Dylan inhabit: you must recognize and cherish the love of your life. You must succumb to your rom-com fate.
And so Dylan does. He realizes that he’s been wrong to reject Jamie (Mila Kunis), the friend he met at the beginning of the movie and with whom he’s been fighting for at least 20 minutes. Thanks to dad, Dylan realizes that he must woo her back with an extraordinary gesture staged in a public place, that she will accept him, despite how stupid or mean he has been, and that they will fall into one another’s arms while a buoyant pop song fills the closing moments of their soundtrack. He knows this mostly because he and Jamie have spent the first part of their movie making fun of other movies. Specifically, they’ve been calling out the clichés and the nonsense in a romantic comedy they watch on DVD, starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, a film that includes all of the above, plus a white horse-drawn carriage in a New York with fake snow and palm trees.
All this is to say that Friends With Benefits is pretty much the movie you expect it to be. This even though it makes a lot of noise early on about not being that movie. The opening sequence lays down this irresolvable paradox in a trick, one that’s almost clever for a minute or so. As Dylan and Jamie each participate in a break-up on a sidewalk, he in LA and she in NYC, they appear “made for each other.” Both are berated by about-to-be-exes who have similar complaints. Hers, played by Andy Samberg, calls her “emotionally damaged” and whines, “Your big eyes kind of freak me out,” while his (Emma Stone) calls him “emotionally unavailable” and—as Exhibit A—fumes that he’s made her miss the start of a John Mayer show, namely, “Your Body is a Wonderland.”
The poke at Mayer is cute, but the cross-cut scenes are hardly less banal than he is. And the meet cute that follows reveals how tedious the film is willing to be: Jamie’s a corporate head-hunter and Dylan, a slick online-mag designer, is being hunted, by GQ magazine no less. When he arrives for his interview—with no intention of taking the job, of course, because it would be selling out (you see the themes piling on here)—she’s so enchanting, and makes the city seem so great (she shows him a flash mob in Times Square and he’s thrilled and amazed, like they’re living in 2004 or 2005, maybe), that he falls right in line.
When they’ve spent sufficient time together to agree they are friends and don’t like each other “that way,” they also agree to have sex without emotional commitment (“Two people should be able to have sex the way they play tennis!” Of course!). They’ll just be friends, like so many friends in so many romantic comedies, and then they’ll find complications, and they’ll fight, and they’ll find other ways to be friends as well as have sex, like couples you’ve seen before.
They have best friends too, sounding boards so you can know what they’re thinking, because if they didn’t say it out loud you wouldn’t be able to tell they were thinking, at all. Jamie chats with her mom, Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), something of a ‘70s-style free spirit, looking for love and, for all her more-or-less-feminist bravado, lonely. Mom meets Dylan in one of those generic contrivances by which she sees him in mid-sex-act with Jamie and so approves his nakedness. Dylan’s sister single-mom sister, Annie (Jenna Elfman), also sees the “benefits” business as a sign of the couple’s compatibility, encouraging her brother to do the right thing even as he begins acting just like Andy Samberg.
The hilarity doesn’t exactly expand with Dylan’s other best friend, the gay one. This would be Tommy (Woody Harrelson), the sports editor at GQ (see how cunning and cool this film is! a gay sports editor!). After his first impression of Dylan—as gay—becomes a running gag, he’s happy to offer his advice on “women,” repeatedly. Because gay men know women better than they know themselves. And because there’s nothing in this movie you haven’t seen before—except maybe Shaun White playing himself as a cartoon bully, popping up a couple of times to menace Dylan for no apparent reason.
The question of Dylan’s sexuality—or more accurately, his potentially shifting gender identity—could be a productive one. Consider the charms and intrigues of Justin Timberlake, from his Mickey Mouse and ‘N Sync days and after, a pop star whose appeal has been premised not only on little girls adoring him but also feeling unthreatened by his soft, sweet, sensitive boyness. As he’s aged, his more overtly “sexy” (back, etc.) performances have resisted one-dimensional or aggressive masculinity.
While Friends With Benefits doesn’t look at complications of gender or sex, it does, late in the process, begin to complicate Dylan. Sadly, it does so through a series of ridiculous quirk reveals: he used to stutter, he has trouble with math, and—the best part—he’s a longtime Kriss Kross fan. When Jamie discovers a childhood photo that shows him with braids and a big smile, Dylan actually turns charming, for a minute, as he launches into a performance of “Jump” by way of Justin Timberlake. As he waves his arms and forgets the words, you glimpse a movie that might have been, a movie that might have surprised you. But no. The movie you see is the movie you get. The embrace under a buoyant pop song is inevitable.