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.
Life’s never exactly been a walk in the park for Rooster (Antwan Patton) and Percival (Andre Benjamin) even when they were childhood best friends but things are about to get real messy. Now grown up and living in the 1930s South--Idlewild Georgia to be exact--they remain close and even work together. Rooster the more flamboyant of the two is the emcee and Percy the piano player at a place called Church which is “anything but.” Church is a speakeasy beloved by locals but after a gangster (Terrence Howard) forcibly removes the club’s former owner (Faizon Love) the new regime is considerably tighter especially for Rooster who has to answer to the new guy in charge. Rooster is all about business and is concerned about keeping Church in operation. Percy meanwhile is torn between love for a woman (Paula Patton) and allegiance for his widower dad (Ben Vereen). But nothing will get resolved before the gunpowder settles. As Outkast Benjamin (a.k.a. Andre 3000) and Patton (a.k.a. Big Boi) have set pop music on fire while maintaining hip-hop cred. In Idlewild they try to continue that along with taking over a new medium; the results are mixed. Patton the one with seemingly no aspirations of movie stardom actually gives the stronger performance of the two. This is just his second film yet he coolly slides right into this role one that should’ve entailed more dialogue and less rapping. For Benjamin he has certainly displayed acting chops before but his wounded puppy dog Percy does not suit the actor at all. A role with more external drama would seem optimal for him. Benjamin does seem deeply committed to acting though so there’s reason to have faith. But it’s Howard yet again who absolutely pilfers the show making everyone look like mere rappers trying to cross over. His Hustle and Flow hype now calmed Howard proves that he is anything but a one-hit wonder. Bryan Barber is Outkast’s go-to music-video director who’s making his feature debut with Idlewild; both of those facts speak volumes about his writing/directing effort here. As such the film is loaded with bright spots usually consisting of the dance sequences and the overall style and major cinematic blemishes as can be expected for a first-timer. In other words the core elements--i.e. the script and direction--are a mess but the peripheral elements--i.e. the look and sound--are dazzling. Part of the problem is the timing of the release: This film is supposed to do too many things from launching Benjamin into movie stardom to coinciding with the actual Outkast album/soundtrack release and that ambition is a microcosm of the flaws. But most of all there is simply too much going on here. Anachronisms run rampant where they shouldn’t and the same can be said for some of the songs--the vulgar rap played against the film’s Southern themes doesn’t always quite work as the intended contrast is sometimes overbearing.