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.
The term “burlesque ” for the uninitiated refers to a specific brand of female striptease that incorporates flamboyant costumes elaborate choreography kitschy songs and various other elements to which heterosexual men are largely indifferent. But it’s wildly popular in other circles -- so much so in fact that it has earned its very own film titled oddly enough Burlesque.
Written and directed by music video veteran Steven Antin Burlesque is fashioned loosely as a camp homage to the 2000 film Coyote Ugly. Stage and screen legend Cher brought to life by an innovative blend of animatronics and CGI stars as Tess the brash tough-as-nails proprietress of Hollywood's almost unbearably fabulous Burlesque Lounge. Despite the obvious popularity of its musical revue the club is plagued by money problems which makes it the target of acquisitive real estate developer Marcus Gerber (Eric Dane) a man whose name alone carries all sorts of ominous Teutonic implications. But Tess determined diva that she is refuses to sell. She's not about to let years of gross financial mismanagement kill her dream of providing a haven where scantily clad women can dance provocatively without fear of encountering men who’d like to sleep with them.
Potential salvation arrives in the luminous top-heavy form of Iowa-bred Ali (Christina Aguilera) a vision of wide-eyed innocence and vaulting ambition in soft focus. Immediately upon entering the Lounge she is struck by the sudden realization that her lifelong dream is to become a burlesque superstar. Unfortunately Tess doesn’t initially recognize Ali’s potential and the poor girl is forced to slum it as a cocktail waitress in the bar area where she’s embraced by the club’s straightgay bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) a southern transplant whose own showbiz dream involves making it as a songwriter. (In accordance with songwriter tradition he takes pains to ensure that every inch of his chiseled frame is bronzed and waxed. Just like Bernie Taupin.) In her free time Ali devotes herself to the study of burlesque and when her opportunity arises she seizes it without hesitation.
Burlesque is principally the Cher and Christina Show and the film thrives when their respective talents are on display. (“Talents ” obviously gaining a dual meaning in regards to Aguilera.) Surrounding them are a smattering of stock characters pursuing forgettable story arcs the lone exception being the always excellent Stanley Tucci adding a pinkish hue to his incomparable wit in the role of Sean Tess’s long-suffering boa-clad second-in-command. He and co-star Alan Cumming are two sides of the same sassy coin but Cumming is little more than a bitchy bit player in Burlesque poking his head into the frame on occasion to deliver a biting one-liner. Then again that description could apply to any number of characters in the film.
It appears that Antin true to his music-video pedigree conceived of Burlesque with the song-and-dance pieces in mind first then set about building a story around them. (The opposite is generally preferred.) The musical set pieces are lavish sexy and at times truly dazzling especially when Aguilera takes the stage but they do little to advance the film’s plot. Consequently Burlesque’s running time swells to almost two hours to satisfy the demands of a story that frankly seem hardly worthy of such an effort.
The record of rappers becoming actors is decidedly mixed. Eminem drew praise for his semi-autobiographical turn in 8 Mile while his Detroit neighbor Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson was largely panned for his work in his 2005 biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Ice Cube and Ice T have both earned steady paychecks and occasional acclaim on the big and small screens while the less-esteemed member of the Brothers Ice Vanilla never quite recovered from 1991‘s disastrous Cool as Ice.
Two of the latest hip-hoppers to attempt the leap Chris Brown and Tip “T.I.” Harris can both be seen in the heist thriller Takers. They also served as producers on the film and in that regard they deserve credit for helping assemble a cast that quite effectively lowers the bar for their acting work. In an ensemble that includes the likes of Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen they needn’t worry about issuing Oscar-worthy performances. As long as they’re semi-ambulatory they stand a fairly good chance of keeping pace with Takers’ slow-moving herd.
The film’s plot concerns a swaggering crew of bank robbers whose sophisticated methods have enabled them to pull off a number of high-stakes heists with nary a hitch. Their strict adherence to a one-job-per-year schedule is enough to fund a luxurious lifestyle in which they freely indulge their tastes for fancy cars tailored suits single-malt scotch and big cigars (No King Cobra and Swisher Sweets for these classy gents. No siree.) All of which is fastidiously depicted by director John Luessenhop (Lockdown) whose aesthetic sensibility in Takers varies between hip-hop video and Maker’s Mark ad.
And they’re decent civic-minded folks too: Jake (Michael Ealy) is eager to leave the game and settle down with his fiance (Zoe Saldana) the proprietor of a trendy downtown L.A. cocktail lounge; his brother Jesse (Brown) wants to ensure their elderly father is taken care of upon his release from prison; proper English chap Gordon (Idris Elba the lone standout) faithfully shepherds his junkie sister through rehab; John’s (Walker) moral compass won’t allow for shooting cops or unarmed civilians; and A.J. (Christensen) is a talented pianist whose bowler hat and hoarse hepcat diction are I can only assume indicative of a deep appreciation for jazz-age style.
But for all the gang’s obvious intelligence their judgment of character is appallingly poor. When a shady former associate named Ghost (T.I. — which after watching the film I now realize stands for "Totally Incoherent") comes to them with a suspiciously lucrative new opportunity he claims to have hatched during a recent jail stint the fellas need all of a nanosecond to sign on to the dubious scheme forsaking all of the rules that made them successful. Why they’d place their livelihoods on the line for an ex-con who can’t be bothered to raise his eyelids above half-mast or pronounce consonants appearing at the end of words like “love” (which his lazy twang renders “luh”) is beyond me but it’s the first of several missteps that open the door for Detective Jack Welles (Matt Dillon) an old-school cop who refuses allow a crumbling marriage chronic sleep deprivation or established caselaw involving warrants and Miranda rights to deter him in his dogged pursuit of justice.
Takers features a smattering of the expected twists and turns most of which are sufficiently telegraphed by Luessenhop’s direction which downshifts to slow-motion at the advent of every action sequence and the film’s predictable story arc. What is surprising about the film is its lack of verve an absolute must for a heist flick and something which even the worst of the Ocean’s films boasted. For all of its bullets and bling Takers all too often feels as lethargic as its co-producer and co-star T.I. looks. (Although to be fair Dillon appears at times to be sleep-walking as well.)