Silver Screen: Friends with Benefits **

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Silver Screen: Friends with Benefits **
Bryan Miller

Of all the genres to knock for lack of originality, the romantic comedy is probably the most counterproductive. The story template is inherent in the title; people meet, overcome some conflict, and wind up together. Romantic comedies don't thrive on plot twists and suspense, but rather the chemistry between the leads, the quality of the jokes, and the effectiveness of whatever cutesy gimmick drives the lovers apart before bringing them back together.

But it's virtually impossible to watch the Justin Timberlake/Mila Kunis vehicle Friends with Benefits and not think about No Strings Attached, released just a few months prior. The similarities extend far beyond the fact that the two essentially share a plot: Two young, good-looking but emotionally conflicted friends decide to embark on a sexual relationship with no romantic entanglements, only to find themselves inevitably entangled in romance.

There's also the fact of the weird casting overlap. No Strings Attached features a castmember from Black Swan (Natalie Portman) romancing a castmember from That Seventies Show (Ashton Kutcher), while Friends with Benefits' Kunis costarred in the TV show with Kutcher and the movie with Portman. Also, according to the intermittently accurate Internet Movie Database (website motto: “Only wrong forty-three percent of the time!”), No Strings Attached even had the working title of-- you guessed it-- Friends with Benefits. Also, Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy and Kennedy's secretary was named Lincoln.

More substantially, in both movies the female lead is emotionally distant thanks to a troubled family life (dead father for Portman, absentee father and promiscuous mother for Kunis). Both movies also put most of their dramatic weight behind subplots involving the male leads’ fathers-- Kutcher's dad is an aloof lothario with an impending medical condition, while Timberlake's father is stricken with Alzheimer's and is unable to care for himself.

What I'm saying here, people, is that while it seems cliché and obvious, and to some degree unfair, to compare No Strings Attached with Friends with Benefits, it's a losing effort. They're the same damn movie, and the latter, slightly newer version is not an improvement.

Timberlake's Dylan is an art director pondering the move from L.A. to New York to work for GQ. Jamie (Kunis) is the corporate headhunter assigned to make sure he takes the job, and her guided tour of the city is so successful that he not only makes the move but keeps in touch with her. It isn't long before the lonely New Yorkers start knocking boots to pass the time, and their agreement to enjoy the physical components of a relationship without the emotional baggage works pretty well for a spirited, half-naked montage. But when Dylan takes Jamie with him on a trip back east to visit his ailing father (Richard Jenkins, bringing a lot to an awfully underwritten character), the stress and intimacy of the situation blur the boundaries of their arrangement and cause the inevitable temporary split on the way toward... well, do I have to tell you?

Timberlake and Kunis are an appealing couple, but they never have a single scene that takes place outside a bedroom that feels genuine. Neither of them is quite good enough to be able to sell mediocre material, and they're faced with a surfeit of it here. A few undeveloped supporting characters played by solid actors (Patricia Clarkson as her libidinous, irresponsible mother, Woody Harrelson as his mucho macho gay coworker pal) are little more than distractions from the movie's lack of direction, right up until the time it takes a hard left turn into dramatics with Jenkins's Alzheimer's-dad subplot, which never plays like anything more than a callous plot device.

Friends with Benefits is slight, not buoyant, right up until the point that it's heavy-handed, not affecting. At the very least it dispenses with a scene of someone rushing to an airport or running to stop a wedding, but its climactic romantic scene is an awkwardly executed callback that looms, inevitable, throughout the movie. Director Will Gluck (Easy A) does himself no favors by littering the film with smarmy meta-humor and allusions to other entries in the genre-- from Nora Ephron to Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice-- implying the film is above it all when it isn't even up to par.

To put this all in romantic-comedy terms, whenever there are two suitors, one must be a Bill Pullman and one must be a Tom Hanks. (For further reference, see Michael Showalter very funny deconstruction, The Baxter.) Meg Ryan can only kiss one guy at the end. Sorry, Friends with Benefits, but you are Bill Pullman.