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.
It’s a comic smorgasboard of cineteenmatic influences from Bring It On and Superbad to buddy comedies like Wedding Crashers. Shawn (Nicholas D*Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) are girl-obsessed jocks on the Ford High School football team. They scheme to trade another sweat-induced summer at football camp for a stint at the mostly female cheerleading camp instead. Their insincere motive? Score with the chicks. However their muscular presence begins to turn around the miserable fortunes of this pathetic squad and now with an “S” for Shawn and an “N” for Nick the team has a genuine chance to score for the first time at the cheer competition finals. On top of all this Shawn falls for the team captain. With a fresh and lively cast Fired Up transcends the derivative nature of this kind of teen. Learning everything they know from conniving male screen teams like Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson D’Agosto and Olsen may be the best pairing since those two started crashing weddings. Their nonstop rat-a-tat locker room-style patter about girls and sex is delivered with the panache of real comic pros -- especially good is a scene where they must try out their cheer routines for their coach with only a strategically placed pom pom for cover. TV sitcom creator (The Loop) and first-time feature director Will Gluck tends to approach this lightweight material exactly as if he were doing it for the small screen but somehow it works -- with the film’s main attribute being a breezy pace and effortless staging of the cheerleading set pieces. The movie clearly doesn’t take itself seriously even indirectly addressing its Bring It On similarities by having the gang actually watching that movie one night and reciting the dialogue in unison. Funny stuff.
Part Mean Girls part Heathers—hell there’s even a little bit of Hilary Duff’s ridiculously stupid The Perfect Man thrown in there—John Tucker Must Die fits the genre nicely. But the word “die” is a little harsh. Actually when three high school girls—wannabe journalist Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) head cheerleader Heather (Ashanti) and vegan activist Beth (Sophia Bush)—find out they are all dating the delectable John Tucker (Jesse Metcalfe) the school’s basketball star they decide to get even. After several embarrassing tactics backfire the girls come up with the perfect idea. They’ll recruit pretty but anonymous new kid Kate (Brittany Snow) doll her up and get Tuck to fall in love with her so she can ceremoniously dump him. Wow I can’t see anything going wrong with that plan. Not at all. Talk about some pretty people John Tucker has got them in spades starting off with the insanely handsome Metcalfe who literally had women weak in the knees as the hot gardener who woos Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria. It’s not a big stretch to see him as the sexy Tuck the most popular er player in school. Then there’s the trio of revengeful hotties: tall lean and blonde Kebbel (Aquamarine) as the “smart” girl; curvy singer/actress Ashanti (Coach Carter) as the bring-it-on “cheerleader”; and luscious and exotic Bush (TV’s One Tree Hill) as the “experienced” one. But really its the perky Snow’s (The Pacifier) show effectively playing the “invisible” girl no one knows or even cares to know who moves around a lot whenever her mother (Jenny McCarthy in a nice bit part) breaks up with a “John Tucker” herself. What’s wrong with these single moms dragging their daughters all over the place after their hearts get broken? Betty Thomas best known for her turn as Sgt. Lucy Bates on Hill Street Blues doesn’t have the best track record in town as a director (I Spy is hers for example). But she’s helmed enough passable comedies (The Brady Bunch Movie Dr. Dolittle) to grant her admittance into the club. Problem here is Thomas isn’t teamed up with a sharp writer like Saturday Night Live alum Tina Fey whose Mean Girls script simply zings. John Tucker is pretty standard fare taking bits and pieces from the already established high-school formula. Still the coveted teen market will more than likely enjoy all the antics in the film—especially the whole “thong” bit in which Tuck caught wearing a thong in one of the girls’ schemes makes it cool for guys everywhere to wear thongs. Yeah you get the picture.
As the opening song belts out fast cars champagne and caviar are what professional basketball player Jamal Jeffries (played by Miguel A. Nunez Jr.) is all about. In fact Jeffries is so taken by his own success that he doesn't sign autographs but uses a stamp. His Dennis Rodman-style antics however reach a breaking point when he strips during a game in front of millions of fans and flings his jock strap into the seats. The stunt gets him thrown out of the league and before he can say "slam-dunk " Jeffries loses his house his cars and his girlfriend. Desperate to work again at the one thing he does best Jeffries comes up with the mother of all schemes: He shaves his legs dabs on mascara and tries out for the women's league--and it works. But as he builds friendships and gains the trust of the women on his team he feels torn between his obligation to his team the Banshees and his need to return to a normal life. If you've seen the 1982 comedy Tootsie you know exactly how this film plays out. Surprisingly Juwanna Mann is not crammed with bad slapstick humor but is an entertaining twist on an old classic with a delightfully sweet storyline.
Nunez (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) not only pulls off the Jamal/Juwanna character with ease but he pretty much steals the show here. His character comes off as endearing rather than obnoxious because he takes his role as a woman seriously and is never condescending about playing in the women's league. Nunez also delivers some great one-liners the best being when he is fighting off advances from the gold-toothed Puff Smokey Smoke. Vivica A. Fox (Two Can Play That Game) plays Michelle a fellow player whom Jeffries develops feelings for. Although it's hard to buy the sweet and almost delicate Fox in such an athletic role she pulls it off--but there is not all that much chemistry between her and Nunez. As Jeffries' crass sports agent Lorne Daniels Kevin Pollak (3000 Miles to Graceland) is seedy with just the right touch of humanity so his character is not completely despicable. The most cartoonish and unlikable character is Tommy Davidson's (Bamboozled) Puff Smokey Smoke. He has some funny lines but is too far-fetched to be believable.
Jesse Vaughan who directed a season of In Living Color makes his directorial debut with Juwanna Mann. Judging from the trailer I thought the film would be a low-brow comedy with a lot of overdone men-in-heels humor. I was instead pleasantly surprised by the film's storyline which--although it is a complete take on Tootsie--is short sweet and non-offensive. While some characters like Puff Smokey Smoke are a bit over the top Nunez's Jamal/Juwanna character is never clownish and well developed enough that you can't help but feel for his/her predicament. Some scenes appear to have a Klumps influence like the scene in which Jeffries is playing cards with his aunt and a gang of her senior friends but the overall effect is a moderately funny film peppered with some slightly funnier moments. Newcomer Bradley Allenstein had the sense to deliver a sweet comedy screenplay that was short enough and knew when to quit.