The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Friends With Benefits
Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, right before the benefits kick in.

Friends With Benefits is the second movie this year about two opposite-sex pals who decide to add casual, emotion-free sex to their relationship. (January's No Strings Attached was the first.) This time, the friends are Dylan (Justin Timberlake), a hotshot web editor for GQ magazine, and Jamie (Mila Kunis), the headhunter who got him the job and convinced him to move to New York from L.A. Both are newly single and carrying an excess of dating baggage. Dylan, we are told, is "emotionally unavailable," while Jamie is "emotionally damaged." They decide that having sex would satisfy a craving, without having to worry about all that complicated stuff like, you know, feelings. As you might expect, this plan turns out to be much more complicated than it seems.

There are things I really like about Friends With Benefits and things I really hate. The script is terrible. Much like No Strings Attached, the movie isn't really interested in exploring the implications of casual sex. Instead, the plot is merely a hook for some bits of raunchy comedy and moments of supposedly progressive sex scenes. We aren't shown much of Dylan and Jamie's "horrible" romantic lives, so their decision to bump uglies doesn't ring particularly true; they do it because that's what the movie is about. In one scene, director Will Gluck (Easy A) shows a television playing the 1969 Paul Mazursky couples-swapping comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Even though it seems tame by today's standards, that movie had a sense of exploration that this one simply lacks. The non-bedroom scenes also tend to be labored: Dylan has to be rescued from the Hollywood sign! His Alzheimer's-ridden father likes to take his pants off in public! You get my drift.

It's worth noting that, also like No Strings, Friends With Benefits ultimately backs off its promise of delivering something sexually liberated. Yes, it evolves into a standard falling-in-love-with-my-best-friend romantic comedy. I can't entirely fault the film for this. In an age when sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS have made many people think twice about promiscuous sex, a movie in which characters have sex and then gleefully go their separate ways would likely make audiences uncomfortable. When you think about it, casual sex is more sad than anything. And so we are left to wait for Dylan and Jamie to realize what we know almost from the beginning: emotions aren't easily turned off.

There are two things that elevate the soggy material: Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. They have genuine chemistry together, which helps carry you through the stupid stuff. Lines of dialogue that aren't inherently funny become funny coming out of their mouths. We believe not only their relationship, but also their sexual attraction to one another. Watching the actors together is the primary joy of the movie; their playful spirit feels authentic in a picture where almost everything else feels artificial.

Of the two, I prefer Friends With Benefits for that reason. Again, the movie doesn't exactly have anything special to say, nor does it take its provocative premise seriously. But at least it's watchable, thanks to the two leads. I'd like to see them together in a smarter romantic comedy someday. They deserve better than this creaky script.

( 1/2 out of four)

Friends With Benefits is rated R for sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.