Platonic relations with a bit of spice
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jul 22, 2011
Watch your back, Natalie. Mila's nipping at your heels like a sexy, smoky-voiced Corgi.
First Mila Kunis stole every scene she shared with Natalie Portman in last year's bravura ballet drama "Black Swan." Now Kunis steals Portman's thunder in "Friends With Benefits," the thematic and infinitely superior double of "No Strings Attached," in which Portman co-starred with Ashton Kutcher.
While Portman and Kutcher generated zero heat in that tale of sex-buddies who turn out to be soul mates, Kunis and Justin Timberlake fairly set the screen on fire as cynics who agree to use each other for physical gratification, but otherwise remain steadfastly un-love-struck. Of course, director and co-writer Will Gluck ("Easy A") knows his audience - and knows rom-com connoisseurs know better than to buy the friends-only bushwah. But he and co-writers Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and Harley Peyton adroitly address those assumptions head-on, by making Kunis's character, a hard-driving media headhunter named Jamie, a savvy consumer of romantic comedy cliches, who is nonetheless powerless to resist their happily-ever-after promises.
After Jamie persuades Timberlake's Dylan to move to New York to become art director at GQ, the two become best buds, deciding one drunken evening to step up their game. The secret to the success of "Friends With Benefits" is that Kunis and Timberlake not only capture the joshing ease of platonic friendship but the far more complicated emotions that inevitably develop as the sex gets friskier. Kunis possesses particular zing as a tart, unsentimental romantic heroine who secretly longs for someone to topple her defenses. But if Kunis gets the showier role in "Friends With Benefits," Timberlake proves a quietly charming stalking horse, finally claiming and fully owning the spotlight with a hilarious homage to the 1990s rap duo Kriss Kross.
For all the funny lines, Manhattan atmosphere and believable chemistry in "Friends With Benefits," Gluck almost single-handedly destroys it with cheap-looking cinematography and hyper-active editing that never allows the two hugely attractive leads to exist in the same frame. That's a shame, because given the space and time to play off each other, Kunis and Timberlake could have recalled Hepburn and Tracy at their peppery best. (He films not one but two flash-mob scenes with jittery imprecision that renders them as incoherent as they are dated and repetitive.)
Still, Gluck has the good sense to cast his supporting players with taste and good care: Patricia Clarkson brings her usual feathery subtlety to Jamie's hippie-dippy mom and Jason Segel and Rashida Jones gamely star in a movie-within-a-movie that trots out every rom-com cliche in the book. If "Friends With Benefits" ultimately succumbs to the very sins it so cleverly deconstructs, it still commits those infractions with a welcome degree of wit and, when it slows down enough, spirited flair.
Contains sexual content and profanity.