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.
Barry Levinson has had quite the career change over the last few years. In the 1970's and 1980's, he rose to the top of the industry as a writer (Tootsie, ...And Justice For All) and director (Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam), grossing hundred of millions of dollars for various movie studio's and racking up four Oscar nominations and one win for his direction. The hits kept coming in the 1990's with Bugsy, Disclosure and Sleepers, but since 1998's Wag The Dog, he's been inconsistent with his work.
We may see a return to the Levinson we love, though, as Sony Pictures has announced that the 68 year-old filmmaker will direct their biopic of human rights activist Jack Healey, titled Brother Jack. The studio sent a brief tweet out not more than an hour ago stating that Levinson would weave the coming of age story of an idealist who leaves the priesthood for a life on the streets and successfully wages a one man war to elevate the issue of human rights.
The screenplay is being written by Harley Peyton, with a current rewrite by Kelly Masterson. The film will be produced by Mosaic and Jack Healey for Doug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach, the presidents of Columbia Pictures.
If you review Levinson's resume, you'll see a hall-of-fame worthy list of productions, many of which have stood the test of time to become true cinematic treasures. His return to the big screen with serious subject matter like this is a good sign for both Sony and film buffs alike.