Sex Machine
by Genevieve Yue

Friends with Benefits
Dir. Will Gluck, U.S., Screen Gems

The romantic comedy has seemed a little desperate lately. Eager, perhaps, to shed the saggy shoulder pads worn by its Nora Ephron-esque elders, the genre has been spewing snarky, pop-culture references at a rate not seen since the likes of Shrek. Going the Distance, Love and Other Drugs, No Strings Attached, and the latest, Will Gluck’s Friends with Benefits, are all drenched with nineties irony, ample sexting, swearing, and preening narcissism passed off as sardonic self-awareness.

Somehow this is meant to seem “updated” or “adult,” though as far as I can tell, these films, like most every other Hollywood movie out there, are meant for children. Let’s not forget that Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, the stars of Friends with Benefits, have both voiced cartoon characters, and Timberlake literally played a doll in the music video for “It’s Gonna Be Me”—from ’N Sync’s sophomore album, which happened to be titled No Strings Attached, just like the Natalie Portman/Ashton Kutcher vehicle from earlier this year that contains the same basic premise as this film. Talk about tangled webs: Friends with Benefits also shares with No Strings Attached the split and recoupled casts of Black Swan and That 70s Show (Kunis the ravenous id to Portman’s frigid ego in the former, polyestered Kunis and Kutcher trading barbs to canned laughter in the latter). Factor in Timberlake’s spazzy star turn as Napster founder Sean Parker in The Social Network, and you’ll get a sense of Friends with Benefits’ hyper-meta-intertextuality, which is nothing more than a mess of references designed to distract you from the film’s frumpy, old-fashioned, moralizing core. Hooking up, as the kids say (does anyone still say this?), can lead to fairy-tale endings, too! And Kunis and Timberlake do their damnedest to prove it, heaping loads of sugar and charm, plus, in Kunis’s case, a bit of side-boob.

“Contemporary” films like these tend to expire quickly, however—sometimes before they’re even released. Hollywood is just too slow and cumbersome to respond effectively to internet memes, but that won’t stop it from trying. Among other missteps, Friends with Benefits makes the grand mistake of conveying a major plot point via flash mob. Sorry, make that three flash mobs. I’m certain the next film to be released about “sex friends” (a No Strings Attached neologism) will feature planking. All the jokes revolving around the film’s sometimes ironic, sometimes sincere nineties soundtrack—namely Semisonic’s “Closing Time” and Kriss Kross’s “Jump”—only fare better because they give Timberlake an opportunity to do what he does best: musical comedy.

Kunis plays Jamie, a vivacious headhunter who lures the charismatic Dylan (Timberlake) away from his online magazine in L.A. to lead the art department at GQ in New York. Reluctant at first, Dylan claims to have “the perfect life,” and, as the movie unfolds, there are plenty of reasons that he might want to stay in California: journalistic integrity, a Malibu beach house, and a father suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Not that he names any of these himself, or gives them much consideration—one Times Square flash mob later, he declares to Jamie that he’ll take the job, and the two quickly become friends. Promised benefits ensue, as does colorful commentary by Jamie’s free-wheelin’ mother (Patricia Clarkson) and Dylan’s sidekick, the wild-eyed Tommy (Woody Harrelson), who can’t deliver a line without referring to his own gayness. Feelings arise, as do the inevitable complications: his intimacy issues, which manifest as a need to wear socks during sex; her supposed emotional damage, which doesn’t manifest at all; and the fairly serious situations each faces with respect to their parents. This being a rom-com, though, everything is tidied up by film’s end, when the newly committed couple goes on a first date (aw!) and, it’s implied, starts fucking on a table at a restaurant.

Kunis and Timberlake are likeable as the lead pair, and their dialogue, when not overshadowed by slapstick or unsexy sex scenes, can feel fresh and even improvised. Whatever crackle they have, however, is often crushed under the weight of exposition and lazy one-liners. Playing up a disingenuous New York/L.A. rift, Dylan protests, “It’s New York, I’ve seen Seinfeld!” Later, when Jamie suggests they get a drink, he smiles. “Ah ha, alcohol! Now we’re talking.” It’s a shame that some of the film’s best lines, not to mention performances, are nestled into the fictional movie within the movie, I Love You, I Love New York. With Jamie mouthing along to her TV, Jason Segel stares wistfully into Rashida Jones’s eyes as he says, with a slight and probably unintentional touch of Lynch, “Looks like New York’s all out of blueberries.” The scene is meant to be a parody, but I couldn’t help wishing I was watching I Love You, I Love New York instead. Genre is sometimes best skewed not by mocking it, but surrendering fully to its absurd presumptions.

It’s a shame, too, because Friends with Benefits’ premise offers the hope of the truly unconventional. Yet the film is not only formulaic but also precisely calculated in its execution, market-tested, risqué without actual risk. Jamie and Dylan are given enough insecurities and neurotic quirks to make them appear “just like us”; Kunis plays “goofy and cute” with ease, and Timberlake good-naturedly suffers more than a few homophobic taunts. Everyone else is employed to massage the romantic bubble around them, and as for the graver realities that appear—the deteriorating health of Dylan’s father, Jamie’s mother’s refusal to reveal the identity of her father—these subplots only serve to nudge the couple toward monogamous bliss. It doesn’t matter that Dylan and Jamie might make better friends than partners, or that their personal lives are more complicated than the film is willing to admit. Casual sex, in this universe, is permissible, because no one actually believes it exists—they love each other, they just don’t know it yet. In the end, the couple has to get together. No matter how screwed up they are, the rom-com will have its way.