Which is worse: a movie that follows the formula of its genre to a T, or a movie that makes fun of the formula only to end up following it exactly?
The former describes No Strings Attached, the incredibly idiotic friends with benefits romantic comedy that came out in January, the latter describes Friends with Benefits, the pretty decent friends with benefits romantic comedy that came out on Friday.
No Strings Attached, for better or worse, never pretended to be anything more than it was. And honestly, I can respect that. The main fault of Friends with Benefits is that, by slapping it with an R rating, it pretends to be something much better than it is, which is a formulaic romantic comedy. Period.
So why then does the film, mostly, work? The same reason director Will Gluck’s last film Easy A did: the cast. Easy A, while being restrained with a PG-13 rating, was effortlessly witty and made worthy by the performances of Emma Stone, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci. Friends with Benefits simply ups the ante: the sex is raunchier, the language is more colorful, and the stars shine brighter.
The timing couldn’t be better for Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis to be in a movie together. They’re both coming off game-changing performances that (probably) should’ve landed them Oscar nominations, but have instead made them legitimate movie stars. And in Friends with Benefits (which, come on, doesn’t really need a thorough plot description) they reaffirm their star power, and assert themselves as serious players in the A-list game. SNL and Family Guy proved, respectively, that both of them could be funny, but it’s nice to see that their unique brand of humor (i.e. blunt as all hell) can sustain a two hour film.
In short, Timberlake and Kunis, and their terrific chemistry, carry this otherwise generic film. But they’ve got help, as most of the supporting performances are scene stealing wonders. After a pair of excellent, pre-credit cameos (which you probably already know about, but I see no need in mentioning here), the film features Clarkson, Jenna Elfman (where the hell has she been?), Woody Harrelson (hysterical as a GQ queen), and Richard Jenkins (the man can simply do no wrong).
I want to make specific mention of a scene that has nothing to do with what I’ve written, but simply deserves recognition. Many scenes in this film take place in a bedroom, the most memorable is an extended conversation in which the camera begins at the foot of the bed, and slowly tracks its way up to the two stars’ faces. In a genre filled with over-caffeinated editing, it is wholly refreshing to just stop and observe. It’s a great, tender moment, shot with perfect restraint; unlike anything I’ve seen in a romantic comedy in the past several years.
As mentioned, it would’ve been nice if (spoiler… I guess) the film didn’t follow the same stock clichés as every other romcom, but I suppose this journey was more enjoyable than others, given that the destination is always the same. B