9 September 2011


Remember that rivalry between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in Black Swan? And that feeling that anything Nina could do, Lily could do better, and dirtier? That shit just got real, but it also became quite tepid in the process. After Portman came out with No Strings Attached in February, Kunis stars alongside Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits, and the two films are predictably interchangeable.

Timberlake plays Dylan, who is head-hunted by Kunis' character, Jamie, and moves to New York to work at GQ. Both have recently broken up with their respective partners, and the two become firm friends as Dylan acclimatises himself to the Big Apple. The status quo is altered when they decide to have casual sex with one another. The terms of their relationship are firmly set out- it's just about the sex and there should be no emotional attachment. But then-- hey, this sounds familiar...

There's another film with which Friends with Benefits can be compared. We're reminded early on that director Will Gluck also made Easy A, courtesy of a cameo by Emma Stone, and a separate, in-jokey callback to her character's name in that film. Gluck also worked on the script for this one, and it shows, in his clumsy reprisal of Easy A's cine-literacy. While his earlier film harboured an affection for the John Hughes canon, Friends with Benefits harbours a contempt for its own strictly implemented romantic comedy formula.

So it's more like No Strings Attached than I would have imagined- both of these films doth protest too much. I enjoyed the cheesy movie-within-a-movie featuring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, shonkily titled I Love You, I Love New York, but it lampshades all of the same genre cliches that infest the actual movie. Both lionise New York's tourist appeal, have didactic music, and a certain sentimentality about them. The contrast is supposed to be in the fact that the actual movie does those things on location in New York, with trendy tracks that will look good on the soundtrack, and Timberlake and Kunis in the lead roles.

As if this one wasn't already inviting its target audience to measure it against No Strings Attached, there are a number of preferable scenarios in the film itself. While Emma Stone cameos as Dylan's girlfriend, only to break up with him, Andy Samberg similarly appears just to detach himself from Jamie. Frankly, the movie with Samberg and Stone- or hell, even the movie with Jason Segel and Rashida Jones- might have been more lively than this one. Timberlake and Kunis have even less chemistry as best friends as they do as a couple. Each is likeable on their own, but they just don't seem to bond on-screen, except in some quite subversively funny sex scenes.

All that is really good about this film comes in small quantities. It's far too late in the day before we're introduced to Richard Jenkins as Dylan's Alzheimer's-afflicted father, to the point where it appears careless. Like No Strings Attached, it has that sprawling cast, comprised of the lead characters' family and friends, and many of them are wasted. Jenkins has a scant amount of screen time, Woody Harrelson is the butt of a number of gay jokes, while contributing little else, and Patricia Clarkson more or less reprises her role as the mum from Easy A.

Friends with Benefits fails in some of the same ways as No Strings Attached, but it loses more points for drawing attention to the ways in which it is failing. "Shut up, Katherine Heigl" is a sentiment we can all get behind, but not when it comes from a film that's trying to insulate itself from the same criticisms. Thankfully, it's not entirely self-loathing, and as romcoms go, it's pretty enjoyable on the whole. I had more fun with it than I did watching Portman's version, but it's frustrating to see that the difference between the two is just six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Friends with Benefits is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Friends with Benefits, why not share your comments below? And yeah, I do still have Closing Time stuck in my head. What of it?!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

No comments: