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.
Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) doesn't like to call attention to himself. He flies under the radar of his small town only leaving his garage apartment to go to church and work. He's not much of a conversationalist in general and talking to women--even sweet co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner)--leaves him utterly tongue-tied. Until the advent of Bianca that is. Long-limbed silken-haired and angelically selfless Bianca is also a mail-order sex doll. But to Lars she's the living breathing embodiment of his feminine ideal. After local doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) pronounces Lars delusional and advises his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) to humor him until he works through whatever issues have prompted his break from reality the whole town gets on board accepting Bianca as one of their own to help make Lars happy. Gosling--who's earned a reputation as one of the best actors of his generation in films as diverse as The Notebook and Half Nelson--continues his streak of impressive performances in Lars. Tremulous tentative and tenderhearted Gosling ensures that Lars is never ridiculous...which isn't an easy feat when you're having imaginary conversations with an inanimate latex mannequin. You can see why everyone wants to help/humor him; crushing Lars' happiness would be like swatting a scared puppy with a newspaper. But Lars isn't the only character in the movie; he's surrounded by several excellent "real girls." Clarkson is both confident and vulnerable as Dagmar offering Lars the infinite patience and understanding he needs; Mortimer is earnest and funny as Karin; and Garner is charmingly authentic (and impressively understanding) as ever-hopeful Margo. It would be all too easy for a movie like Lars and the Real Girl to fall victim to its own quirkiness. But director Craig Gillespie--in his feature-film debut--keeps things just grounded enough to be believable. Somehow you buy the fact that the townspeople would not only accept but embrace Bianca. A lot of that is thanks to the talented cast and writer Nancy Oliver's script which balances moments of silly humor and absurdity with scenes of heartfelt drama (her time as a scribe on Six Feet Under probably helped in that regard). But Gillespie deserves credit too. Like its hero Lars isn't perfect--it feels a bit long and the central concept may be just a little too off-beat for some--but it has a good heart and means well and you'll want to stick around to see how it turns out.
What No Reservations needs is a smell-sensitive rat who can cook. Instead we get head chef Kate Armstrong (Catherine Zeta-Jones) a perfectionist who runs the kitchen of a swanky Manhattan eatery with an iron fist. Let’s just say she’s in desperate need of an attitude adjustment so in pops new sous-chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart) a free-spirited fellow who cooks by the seat of his pants. Soon he’s got the whole kitchen staff laughing and loving him way more than Kate. Nick tries to charm Kate too but she won’t have any of it. To top it off Kate unexpectedly becomes the guardian of her 9 year-old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin) after her sister dies in a car accident. The understandably distraught Zoe is having a tough time and won’t eat any of her aunt’s highfalutin cuisine. The little girl only likes fish sticks—and as it turns out spaghetti a Nick specialty. Yes Nick finally melts Kate’s heart when he gets Zoe to eat a hearty bowl of spaghetti. You can see where this is going right? Love—and tomato sauce—conquers all. When you have two incredibly attractive people onscreen together you want the sparks to fly. Think Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. True those two were falling in love for real but still it makes for a more fulfilling and cinematically romantic experience. But alas it doesn’t always work out and in No Reservations’ case the love story between Zeta-Jones and Eckhart deflates like a fallen soufflé. On their own they each hold up well: Zeta-Jones is good at being steely but emotionally stunted when it comes to matters of the heart while Eckhart’s easy-going charm and great smile make his Nick an obvious choice for any woman. Get them together however and things sag like a wet noodle. Too bad. Breslin is her usual cute self playing it a little more somber than she did in Little Miss Sunshine but the little actress ought to be careful not to pigeon-hole herself into the “eccentric but affecting” kid role. No Reservations also has another knock against it: It’s a remake of the German film Mostly Martha a far more stellar—and original—effort. Natch. Turning a hit foreign film into a studio picture rarely works out; something always gets missed in the translation which for No Reservations is surprising since Mostly Martha writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck is listed as the co-writer. What Nettelbeck did with Mostly Martha is revolve her story around master chef Martha (played brilliantly by Martina Gedeck) and her quirks and anxieties over suddenly having to raise a child. The love story with the Italian chef is more a pleasant surprise than the driving force. But of course with No Reservations the romance is played up for that certain chick flick appeal with two people who have no chemistry. Maybe Nettelbeck was lured into Americanizing her original. For his part director Scott Hicks (Shine) is definitely capable enough to carve out what he can from this predictable set up even adding some flair to the kitchen scenes but he can’t quite push No Reservations past its banality.
A fictional fever-dream mystery crafted loosely from the notorious still-unsolved 1947 murder of wayward wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) the tale teams two rising L.A. police detectives whose bone-crunching boxing bout give them political juice—Mr. Ice cool young Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Mr. Fire hotheaded veteran Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Both men become embroiled in and obsessed with the sick horrific crime even as Dwight falls hard for Lee’s victimized world-weary live-in love Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson)—with Lee’s unspoken approval: he’s too busy spiraling downward into a psychotic fixation with solving the murder having previously lost his sister to foul play. But Dwight’s also led astray by the more carnal temptations of voracious Madeline Sprague (Hilary Swank) the daughter of a bizarre high-society family with her own shadowy connections to the Dahlia. Sordid subplots abound simmering and swirling as in death the Black Dahlia threatens to suck everyone into an ever-widening abyss. Not entirely an epic of miscasting the film nevertheless falls short finding performers to essay Ellroy’s compelling cast: Hartnett demonstrates more depth here than in most previous efforts but comes fathoms short of the necessary mix of drive and angst to suit the complex role. Although she physically conveys a maturity beyond her years Johansson shows none of the wounded wisdom of the novel’s Kay—her seductive ethereal air would with an ebony dye job have served her far better as the Dahlia herself a cipher who becomes in the eyes of those obsessed with her whatever they dream her to be. Conversely Kirshner delivers in that elusive spectral role but the been-around-the-block-one-too-many times faded glint in her eyes would have made her a much more involving Kay. Eckhart has the spit and polish of a political-minded cop down pat but lacks the self-destructive inner fire that fuels the façade. Swank is mostly delightful by degrees—many of her choices are intriguing occasionally outrageous and give her femme fatale needed dimensions but others are overindulged. There are certainly macabre grand guignol moments in the story that make it more akin to Sunset Boulevard than its more obvious comparison Ellroy’s own L.A. Confidential but De Palma—never known for his subtlety—handles them with such an overt determined campiness any wry irony is wrung from them. The result is more of a parody—indeed an unflattering caricature—than a modern commentary on classic noir style. Add in his ceaseless camera-swooping swipes from Hitchcock and his ongoing fixation with meaningless gore—ham-fisted homages and hemorrhaging hemoglobin to ape Ellroy’s alliterative gossip-rag riffs—that distract from the intensity of the source material and all that remains is a bloody shame.
October 23, 2003 10:39am EST
Top Story: Disney Pulls Plug on Affleck Comedy
The Walt Disney Co. pulled the plug Monday on its Ben Affleck matrimonial comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past--just four weeks before it was set to begin production. The film was to star Affleck as a bachelor attending his younger brother's wedding, where he is visited by the ghosts of his past girlfriends. I Spy director Betty Thomas was on board to helm. Although Disney declined to comment on its decision to scrap the project, The Hollywood Reporter suggested Thursday that the film's estimated high cost as well as Affleck's tarnished image were possible contributing factors. Since the box office flop of Affleck's turkey Gigli, which co-starred his "pretty girlfriend" Jennifer Lopez, the celebrity couple appears to be suffering from a Bennifer backlash. Miramax Films, for example, recently decided to spin the advertising for its upcoming film Jersey Girl around director Kevin Smith instead of Affleck and Lopez, and pushed the film's release from November to March 2004. Disney, however, will still have to pay Affleck whether the film gets made or not since the actor signed a pay-or-play deal. Affleck's next feature, the John Woo sci-fi thriller Paycheck, hits theaters Dec. 25.
Courteney Cox Arquette May Be Pregnant
Friends star Courteney Cox Arquette, who told Barbara Walters in an interview for ABC's 20/20 last week that that she and husband David Arquette are having trouble conceiving, could be pregnant. According to Us magazine, Arquette's brother Alexis let the news slip while taping the Sharon Osbourne talk show Monday for an episode set to air Nov. 7. The couple's publicist Cindy Guagenti told USA Today Tuesday: "We're not commenting. When they're pregnant and ready to announce it, they will." Cox, who suffered several miscarriages and has tried in vitro fertilization, told the paper earlier this month: "It'll happen."
Ron Howard Wins Outstanding Achievement Award
Director Ron Howard received an outstanding achievement in directing award Monday at the seventh annual Hollywood Film Festival's "Hollywood Awards" ceremony in Beverly Hills, Calif. The winners of this year's festival, which honors independent filmmakers and established Hollywood professionals, were chosen by public voting online. The public's favorites were Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp (actor), Diane Lane (actress) Geoffrey Rush (supporting actor) and Alison Lohman (supporting actress). Scarlett Johansson, star of Lost in Translation, and Orlando Bloom, star of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Pirates of the Caribbean, each received breakthrough acting awards.
MPAA Close to Screener Ban Resolution
Major studio executives are reviewing a draft press release that would announce a partial lifting of the Hollywood's controversial "screener" ban, which has mushroomed into a crisis since it was first announced four weeks ago. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the proposal under consideration by the Motion Picture Association of America would let Oscar voters to receive screeners once they agree to a series of conditions, which include keeping the tapes in their homes and not lending them to friends and relatives. The ban was initially introduced by the MPAA in an effort to thwart piracy but has since faced growing opposition, including from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Gibson Finds Distributor for Passion
Mel Gibson has found an independent distributor for his controversial religious flick, The Passion of Christ. The film, hailed by Christian organizations but reviled by Jewish groups, will be distributed in the United Sates by Newmarket Films, Reuters reports. The Passion of Christ, formerly known as The Passion, has been viewed as anti-Semitic for its portrayal of Jewish officials and angry Jewish mobs as being the ones responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, played by Jim Caviezel. Gibson, a devout Catholic, reportedly paid $20 million to $25 million of his own money to make the film and has denied that it is anti-Semitic. The film could be released in February 2004.
Clay Aiken's Measure of a Man Tops Charts
American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken's first album, Measure of a Man, debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. According to Nielsen SoundScan data issued Wednesday, RCA sold 613,000 copies in the United States in its first week. Aiken's album has sold more than twice as many as fellow ex-Idol Kelly Clarkson, whose debut album Thankful bowed at No. 1 with 297,000 units. Aiken's former No. 1 single, "This Is the Night," spent two weeks atop Billboard's Hot 100 in June and the track "This Is the Night" has already sold 912,000 copies.
Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith Dead of Apparent Suicide
Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who earned an Oscar nomination and widespread notice for his 1997 single "Miss Misery" from the film Good Will Hunting, died in an apparent suicide Tuesday in his Los Angeles home. Smith's live-in girlfriend discovered the body of the 34-year-old musician.