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.
Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the first Step Up; you won’t feel lost. The dance movies these days mostly rely on the hot soundtrack and even hotter bodies flipping around. Having a coherent story is just a bonus and while the two movies are similar in theme--kid from the streets goes to a prestigious arts academy--and the original’s Channing Tatum makes a cameo to tie it all together the two films can stand alone as they are. In this case the kid is a 16-year-old orphan named Andie (Briana Evigan) who grew up in the same Baltimore neighborhood as Tatum’s Tyler. She’s a fierce dancer whose “crew” is the reigning champ in street dancing. But Andie also gets into trouble a lot and as an ultimatum from her guardian she is forced to attend the Maryland School of the Arts or be shipped away. Soon fish-out-of-water Andie ends up meeting other MSA students who dare to be different and who want to break away from the snooty confines of the school--including resident hottie Chase (Robert Hoffman)--and so they form their own crew to compete on the streets. In the rain no less. Although it’s hard to say if there is going to a breakout star such as Channing Tatum Step Up 2’s cast of mostly unknown actors/dancers still makes the film more visceral. Evigan (daughter to TV star Greg Evigan) is a fresh face with a refreshingly normal-looking body especially for a dancer and a raspy Kathleen Turner voice. While she naturally handles the shimmies and shakes with aplomb she’s also fairly convincing in the more dramatic moments as her Andie is torn between her street crew and her new friends at MSA. Hoffman (She's the Man) also does a fine job as Chase playing him with an easygoing charm and killer smile. Still the two of them unfortunately don’t create the same kind of heat Tatum and Jenna Dewan did in the original Step Up and the sequel suffers from it a bit. Then there’s the crew of MSA misfits all just about as different looking as you can get but who can all MOVE like it’s nobody’s business including the nerdy Moose (Adam G. Sevani) and hip-hopping Japanese exchange student Jenny (Mari Koda)--and a guy with bad teeth (LaJon Dantzler)! There’s also R&B recording star Cassie Ventura making her film debut as Chase’s ex-girlfriend Sophie a singer/actor/dancer who seems MSA old-school but kicks it to the streets when it counts. Thank goodness. But of course Step Up 2 all boils down to the dance sequences montages and the final showdown on the rain-drenched streets. If those don’t work then the movie is going to fall flat on its face. Luckily USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate Jon Chu making his directorial debut with Step Up 2 shows off some of those skills he learned in school. The choreographed set pieces are done well culminating with the MSA crew showing off their stuff as the rain pours down on them. The dancing in Step Up 2 isn’t necessarily groundbreaking but still for those of us who only wish we could move like that it’s fun to watch. Of course having a rap-pounding soundtrack--which includes tracks from T-Pain Missy Elliott Flo Rida Cassie Kevin Michael featuring Wyclef and more--helps as well. All these elements make Step Up 2 a worthy sequel--and its soundtrack a worthy download on iTunes.