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.
Set in post-World War III Los Angeles Southland Tales takes place over the three days leading up to a huge Fourth of July celebration as the world is crumbling around the city’s citizens who are living in a city that has been turned into an armed camp by the government. There’s a huge cast of characters in this disjointed tale written and directed by Richard Kelly including Boxer Santaros (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) an action-movie star married to Madeline (Mandy Moore) the spoiled rich daughter of a powerful senator. Boxer turns up near the beach in L. A. suffering from complete amnesia; he’s watched by a military sniper named Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) who also narrates the film and seems to hold the key to the mystery of what happened to Santaros in the desert that caused his mental breakdown. Meanwhile Santaros falls for activist porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) as radical anti-government forces led by Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn) plot a huge terrorist event to take place on the Fourth. Add in a police officer (Seann William Scott) who may be the link between all the other characters and you’ve got the gist of the story. Unfortunately there are easily 10 other characters wandering around in this mishmash of a plot played by everyone from Miranda Richardson John Larroquette and Christopher Lambert to Wallace Shawn Kevin Smith Jon Lovitz and Bai Ling and not one of them seems to have a clue as to what is actually going on--which is exactly how the audience watching feels too. It is a mystery how so many usually talented actors stumbled into this incoherent mess of a movie much less how they have all succeeded in giving some of the worst performances of their careers. Dwayne Johnson the usually likable wrestler-turned-actor leads the pack resorting to rolling his eyes and twitching his fingers to portray a man in emotional distress. Sarah Michelle Gellar is equally abysmal; her ridiculous porn-star/talk-show-host character comes off as a complete caricature not a characterization. Miranda Richardson simply chews the scenery and Wallace Shawn actually does a caricature of himself which is just weird. It is no wonder that when this inane flick debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 people booed and walked out. The shock is that Sony coughed up more money for special effects and a re-edit--perhaps that is because there are so many well-known names on the cast list? Whatever the reason the still two-and-a-half-hour film is so jumbled enervating and downright boring that we’re pretty certain you’ll be tempted to head for the bathroom and never come back. The only thing that might keep you interested is if you have a Bai Ling fetish (although why you would pick her to obsess over is a complete mystery); she spends the movie vamping it up in costumes that make her look like the porn star instead of Gellar. Writer-director Richard Kelly had a cult hit with Donnie Darko which apparently made him believe that there is a market for movies that are incredibly incoherent and lacking in the most basic narrative focus. Sadly he’s made just that movie with Southland Tales; in fact he explains himself in three graphic novels and a large Web site the prequel to the movie that we apparently should have investigated beforehand since the film is supposed to be the last three chapters of the saga. But therein lies the rub as no filmmaker should assume that moviegoers will have taken the time to do those things before entering the theater. For anyone who has not embraced this self-involved filmmaker’s other work Southland Tales simply comes across as a mixed-up jumble of half-baked ideas performed by actors who look like they are involved in a high school video project not a bona fide Hollywood movie. And if the steady stampede for the door during the screening we sat all the way through is any indication this is a movie that will have patrons who have actually paid for the experience considering a quick sneak away into a different movie in the multiplex. Lord knows that only someone who is paid to watch would actually sit through this whole film. After all those are two hours and 24 minutes of life that we will never get back.
There is something more than a feast of love being force-fed to us in this movie; it’s closer to all-you-can-eat buffet o’ syrup but that is admittedly not an inviting title. Either way the entangled melodrama in Feast of Love is too much to digest. The movie centers on several love stories or perhaps more specifically the Oregon coffeehouse that serves as the de facto hub of said stories. The café’s owner Bradley (Greg Kinnear) is responsible for most of the tales since women leave him left and right. In fact the movie opens with Bradley’s wife (Selma Blair) ditching him for a woman. Then there’s Harry (Morgan Freeman) the Yoda of love who advises Harry—and everybody else—in the school of relationships. Finally there’s Oscar (Toby Hemingway) a young barista in the café whose lust for his new coworker (Alexa Davalos) goes requited. The carousel continues with Bradley’s misfires Harry’s philosophizing about them and Oscar’s blossoming relationship until the movie exploits our lack of attention to detail at the end. That’s when the big “intersecting” storyline is meant to swoop in and leave us in awe over the many splendors of love or the Feast thereof. It says something when even a classic Morgan Freeman performance can’t bring Feast of Love a smidge closer to realism. In other words he can’t be blamed for headlining an untenable movie. Feast greatly simplifies what a longtime vet like Freeman—or his screen wife Jane Alexander—understands and the rest of the cast doesn’t: less is more. He refuses to buy into the melodrama under which this movie wants to operate and that refusal is what makes his relationship the only palpable one. Elsewhere a “more is less” mode of thinking seems to take over. Kinnear further pigeonholing himself as the embodiment of blissful ignorance (i.e. Little Miss Sunshine The Matador) can score laughs with ease but can’t evoke anything subtler especially pity. Meanwhile Radha Mitchell (Melinda and Melinda) as Bradley’s second wife (following a barely there Selma Blair) displays some promise before her role spirals out of control and into Overacting 101 which she passes with flying colors. But nobody exaggerates like the cast’s youngest members Hemingway (The Covenant) and Davalos (The Chronicles of Riddick). Of course the screenplay is responsible to a certain extent for their hamming it up but simply put their couple seems much more Shakespearean than contemporary American. Case in point: When Davalos deadpans “I think my intensity scares guys off ” it can’t be anything but eye-roll worthy. By now it’s hard to fathom that Feast of Love director Robert Benton is the Robert Benton of Bonnie and Clyde and Kramer vs. Kramer fame. His movies have been on an extremely steep decline ever since those landmark achievements and his latest brings that decline one step closer to a crash landing. Feast is not unlike many romantic comedies in its inability to replicate real life—only...it’s supposed to be a dramedy! But while the humor aspect is there and connects drama to Benton and writer Allison Burnett (Resurrecting the Champ)—who adapted Charles Baxter’s undoubtedly more entertaining book—seems to mean nudity aplenty and/or soap-opera dialogue peppered with F-bombs. It’s as though the director in sculpting his characters has never met a real-life couple because two of the three couples are caricatures with Freeman and Alexander narrowly saving theirs from being so. That might’ve worked if the movie were a romantic comedy in earnest and didn’t try to wax poetic with a tidy wrap-up ending. But it’s all so unrealistic almost supernatural in its conclusion that Feast is the sort of movie that arouses the love cynic in you not the believer.