I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I do not mind it when a story is told and retold. That’s why the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew lasted for years. Not because I liked them, but because people like the story and don’t mind when it’s retold. The question is whether the expression is any good. Like Batman movies. You take the same story and put it in somebody elses voice or put it in a new setting and bango-bingo, baby, you got a stew goin’.
They both get dumped and that’s funny. Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is an up-and-coming art designy guy and Jamie (Mila Kunis) is a headhunter trying to get him to be the art director at GQ. Sexy, trendy. They get on like a house on fire, an expression I don’t fully understand, and it isn’t long before they get drunk and make a pass at one another. Ah, but the rule is, we all know what the rule is. It’s kind of working, they pause to try and date other people, which is not very successful, but not really because they yearn for one another (points!). Then things happen that require mending.
The story of Friends with Benefits (2011) is pretty standard. There are a few interesting touches, like the male lead having the gay friend (Woody Harrelson) telling it like it is. Kunis doesn’t get much support, though. She gets an unreliable mother, Lorna played by Patricia Clarkson who is in serious danger of type-casting. So is the dad (Richard Jenkins) for that matter. There’s a funny little movie-in-a-movie starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones which plays on the tropes.
His dad sounds EXACTLY like Mitt Romney.
Is it enough to make this its own movie? I’m not so sure. This one is pretty middle-of-the-road and I was expecting quite a bit more. But it’s main problem is that while it is cognizant of the tropes and cliches, and points a fair few out, it falls back into them without much irony. Okay, there’s a little irony. But to be great, they probably should have ended it like Great Expectations or something. I don’t know, it would have been tough, but Will Gluck, who co-wrote and directed, did it in Easy A (2010), so I know he’s got the imagination. Or, at least, he knew someone who did (Bert V. Royal)
No, it doesn’t quite happen, so it’s not great. Now I’ve got to watch No Strings Attached (2011), God forgive me, to draw some comparisons. I really don’t want to do that. What I truly fear is that No Strings Attached is somehow better. But that’s a crap fear, so I’ll man up.
Since I was talking about “women as people in film”, why don’t I give some analysis on that. There’s a moment when they’re on the top of the building and they’re having their required tiff and the camera stays with Kunis’s eyes and there’s a moment there of perfect truth. I thought, “there it is.” Then they kind of ruined it.
Wait a second.
In Easy A, Olive said John Hughes didn’t direct her life and then there was an ironic John Hughes-y ending and in this Kunis wants a white knight/movie life and there’s an ironic contrived movie-ending. I’m on to you Gluck, I’m on to you.
This movie, unlike Easy A, is a balance movie where each side gets to air their baggage and show how they’re perfect for one another (in that they’ve already proved that they can stand one another). That’s a tough needle to thread and, written by three men, pehaps inevitably gave Dylan the deeper injuries and Jamie the kind where you say “that guy’s just a douche.” Her lack of genuine problems or the non-expression of her genuine problem (i.e. wanting a movie life) is a real strike against it being a good woman movie.
No, instead, she’s sensitive to criticism, is the first to fall in love, and allows herself to be won back in the end. Maybe if Timberlake were less awesome as a person, kind of like Jason in Friends with Kids (2012), it would mean more that Jamie gets back with him–like, duh, obviously he just had to get past his fear of committment (dull) that turned him into a jerk for a brief period–that would have dug a little deeper and made her less of a non-entity.
Gluck & Co. (writers Harley Peyton, Keith Merryman, David A. Newman) showed a bit of themselves when Harrleson says that he wouldn’t be gay if he weren’t gay because women are all-round better than men. That comes from deep training and brainwashing to make statements like that. Culture is moving and I expect that the pendulum will swing back once we (the genders) get to know each other a little better.
For all of that, the movie is pretty darn funny. On the Ratigan’s Hierarchy of Film Needs, pretty darn funny is absolutely required for a satisfactory viewing. Oh, I’m totally going to make a graphic for that. You watch, some jerk beat me to it. Well I bet s/he wasn’t being post-ironic, was s/he?
No, what makes the movie work is the good comic chemistry combined with the solid jokes. The first scene, the breaking up scene, is quite strong. I think they could have expanded that for some better commentary and laughs, but it was wholly satisfactory. Gluck & Co. get straight-A’s for self-awareness, the joke of the 21st century.
I think Gluck needs to watch a couple more movies to study his music-mixing. A call-back joke based upon a particular song is absolutely sound (hehe) in principle, but the literally applicable song lyrics take the focus off the mood and puts it on the content of the lyrics–bad. It’s bad because it slaps you in the face instead of gently guiding you to your emotional destination, which I know he knows because he said so through Kunis early in the movie. But that’s a good-great distinction, and maybe he’s not there yet.
Solid movie, wouldn’t buy it unless you expect Timberlake to become the next Leonardo DiCaprio, which he might. If I found it for sub-$5.00, I’d probably pick it up.