I came to Friends With Benefits with the hope that writer-director Will Gluck would take aim at the romantic comedy with the same piquant mischievous zeal he displayed in 2010’s Easy A a film that earned him comparisons to such hallowed figures as Alexander Payne and John Hughes. And he does—for a while at least. The film springs from the gate with a fun revisionist élan promising to lay waste to the stale conventions that have long characterized the genre. A promise that in the end is sadly unfulfilled.
Attractive twentysomethings Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) first meet as business associates—he’s a savvy web designer she’s a spunky headhunter who lures him to New York to work for GQ. Both happen to be recovering from nasty breakups (he was dumped by a Jon Mayer obsessive played by Emma Stone; her by a cloying slacker played by Andy Samberg) and they bond over their shared exasperation with relationships and romance.
One night wallowing in their mutual malaise over beer and pizza and an insipid rom-com (a fictitious film-within-a-film featuring uncredited Jason Segel and Rashida Jones) they hit on an idea: Why not use each other to sate our primal urges without all the hassles and complications that committed relationships entail? (That this is the first time either has pondered cohabitation strikes me as a bit disingenuous: Both rank among the upper-percentile of desirable people; surely the notion might have at least briefly occurred to them before?)
The pack is formalized by an oath sworn over a iPad bible app (the film is gratuitously tech-chic to the point of employing flash mobs as plot devices) and consummated in one of the film’s funniest scenes. Freed from any pretensions of romance and from any fears of embarrassment or rejection they approach the act from the perspective of two people seeking only to maximize their enjoyment. (He encourages her to look at it as a game of tennis.) They calmly recite their preferences idiosyncrasies and deal-breakers like agents negotiating a contract; during the deed they critique each others’ performance with utter candor offering helpful guidance when it’s called for. (She shows particular disdain for a technique called “The Tornado.”)
They’re hanging out they’re having sex; the only thing missing obviously is intimacy. It’s inevitable—at least in the peculiar moral universe inhabited by studio rom-coms—that one or both of them will come to crave it. And that’s when complications arise both for Dylan and Jamie and for the filmmakers. Faced with two roads Gluck opts to take the more-traveled one and Friends With Benefits gradually—and disappointingly—yields to convention affirming many of the rom-com tropes and clichés it initially seemed intent on skewering.
That the film is funny—wry and quick and (at least initially) irreverent—helps alleviate the let-down of its second-half surrender to formula. Kunis and Timberlake make for able verbal sparring partners their chemistry is real and their interplay natural and unforced. Accustomed to smaller roles and guest-hosting spots on SNL Timberlake acquits himself nicely in Friends With Benefits even if he at times appears outmatched by Kunis. I’m not quite prepared to forgive him for The Love Guru but I’m getting there.
Every few years Hugh Grant comes out of hiding to wince and stammer his way to a paycheck occasionally serving up a pleasant surprise like About a Boy but more often churning out forgettable rom-coms like Music and Lyrics and Two Weeks Notice. His latest film Did You Hear About the Morgans? a fish-out-of-water rom-com co-starring Preakness runner-up Sarah Jessica Parker belongs steadfastly in the latter category -- and it might just be the worst of the lot.
Bearing a perpetually pained expression Grant literally suffers through the film as Paul Morgan a Londoner-turned-Manhattanite whose marriage to Meryl (Parker) a posh high-achieving real-estate agent is set adrift after his recent infidelity. He’s keen on reconciliation; she’s firmly against it. So are we for that matter after witnessing a few minutes of their strained and utterly futile attempts at creating chemistry. But I digress...
Prospects for the Morgans’ marriage appear grim but their destinies abruptly align again when they unwittingly witness a murder of a high-level FBI informant. Fearing for the unhappy couples’ safety the government whisks Paul and Meryl away to a tiny rural town in Wyoming where they’re forced to live under the same roof deprived of the modern conveniences of their upscale New York lifestyle.
The Morgans eventually reunite of course but not before subjecting us to a truly torturous gauntlet of bland bits each involving a predictably disastrous experiment with horseback riding wood chopping cow milking or other stereotypically rural activity. Our suffering is occasionally mitigated by the periodic witty comment from Grant whose ability to deliver wry one-liners with expert precision is still very much intact. After Did You Hear About the Morgans? however his career may not be.
More than just the frighteningly awful things that go bump in this particularly nasty fog The Mist is really a morality play about how fear and paranoia feed on a panicked scared group of people looking for some semblance of sanity about what’s happening to them. Set in a small Maine town (where else in a King story?) local denizen David Drayton (Thomas Jane) his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and several townsfolk are trapped in a local grocery store by a strange wraithlike mist. Even though they are warned early on that there are “things in the mist” killing people not everyone in the store believes it. But when it becomes evident all is indeed not well terror begins to build fueled by a religious zealot (Marcia Gay Harden) who starts preaching fire and brimstone--and eventually human sacrifice--in order to appease a vengeful God. Rational thought is quickly thrown out the window to the point that David begins to wonder what terrifies him more: the monsters in the mist or the ones inside the store--the human kind the people who until now had been his friends and neighbors. He decides he’ll take his chances in the mist. Darabont has collected a fine ensemble cast starting with Jane (The Punisher) as the film’s capable Everyman just trying to make sense of the horror unfolding while keeping his son as safe as possible. As little Billy Gamble (Babel) is quite affective especially when he turns on the waterworks and calls for his mother who must be food for the gods at this point. Also scarily good is Oscar-winner Harden as the religious nut who inevitably whips her burgeoning flock into a murderous tizzy. Other standouts include: Andre Braugher as one of the non-believers who has a running beef with his neighbor David; Toby Jones (Infamous) as a rational grocery store clerk with a wicked aim; Laurie Holden (Silent Hill) as a kindly newcomer and mother figure for Billy; Sam Witwer (TV’s CSI) as a doomed U.S. soldier who gives the reason why the mist has come upon them; and veteran character actors Frances Sternhagen and Jeffrey DeMunn (who is also a Darabont staple) as David’s allies in escaping the store. All are very capable at their jobs. Maybe Darabont and King are twins separated at birth. No other writer--or director for that matter--has been quite as successful as Darabont in capturing the true essence of a King novel evident in both of Darabont’s Oscar-nominated King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. This is the first time Darabont has tackled one of King’s horror stories but the writer/director innately understands what makes King’s The Mist a terrifying experience. Much like John Carpenter did with The Thing Darabont’s well-written script focuses on the human factor--the fear-feeding frenzy these ordinary people get themselves caught up in showing how human nature can ultimately be more horrifying than any monster. But of course Darabont has to reveal The Mist’s otherworldly creatures or the movie wouldn’t be complete. He visualizes King’s vivid descriptions of the monster attacks as best he can but unfortunately The Mist’s special effects come off a tad sub-par especially in this day and age. Still The Mist should keep you riveted until the final moments--a rather depressing new ending Darabont wrote himself with King’s thumbs-up approval.