Friends with Benefits (Will Gluck, 2011)

12Sep11

Justin Timberlake (Dylan), Mila Kunis (Jamie), Patricia Clarkson (Lorna), Richard Jenkins (Mr. Harper). Screenplay by Keith Merryman et al. Directed by Will Gluck. Rating: 15. Running time: 109 minutes.

Surprise, surprise: a silly little romcom which, upon reflection, I should probably have known would fail to be anywhere near as cool as its two main stars, Friends with Benefits might be made bearable by Timberlake and Kunis, but you never stop knowing the pleasure is a superficial guilty one that’ll last about as long as the global economy’s recovery.

It starts off very badly, and the cheese factor is only lightly lowered from that moment on. Five minutes in and the cheap point scoring begins, the film taking advantage of everyone’s love of New York with some obligatory skyline shots and boy-meets-girl moments unfolding against the backdrop of Rockefeller Plaza and Times Square. If only we were all New Yorkers looking as lovely as these two and enjoying casual white collar jobs, we’d be living the dream. As it is, though, we’re not, so seeing them live it will have to do.

The film seems to think it can avoid being cliché simply by talking about the crimes that films like itself normally commit, so we spend a lot of time listening to Timberlake moan about Hollywood relationship myths which are never representative of how love works in real life. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work; firstly because, sorry, but you’re two years late – (500) Days of Summer already did that, and it did it better; secondly, it’s only a matter of time before the film starts reeling those clichés off itself (I felt like playing romcom cliché bingo, but writing the tick list would have taken longer than the film lasted); and thirdly because this once again feels like manipulative dialogue that’s served up merely to make us give ourselves congratulatory pats on the back for already knowing everything he’s saying.

So if the feel-good factor described so far sounds phoney, sorry, but it is. The only flashes of real fun come as the casual sex begins, and the jokes in their opening encounter, for a brief moment, do show signs of amusing. Unfortunately, like the sex this doesn’t last long, and before we know it they’re falling out only to wait to fall in love properly, and the screen time’s being filled up with pointless secondary plots involving unnecessarily weird secondary characters, and you wonder what happened to Sean Parker and Black Swan‘s Lily, and you wish Sorkin reshaped this oh-so average script so you could see these two really get it on.

Their looks are good enough and their smiles sufficiently beaming that most of this bitterness is only an aftertaste, but when it comes and you reflect on the price of your cinema ticket, it’s an aftertaste and a half. I still like both Kunis and Timberlake. Watching both of them act is really enjoyable. But after showing what they are capable of earlier this year, they shouldn’t be settling for second-rate cinema like this, and neither should we.

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