The death of the romantic comedy has been pronounced so many times in the past few years it is impossible to keep track. It’s understandable, given the extraordinary number of terrible examples that Hollywood has inflicted upon us recently. Yet they keep on coming and some of them even seem to think that they can revitalize the genre. “Friends with Benefits” is one of those attempted saviors. It’s even being advertised as somehow hipper than the rom-com, led by a daring and sexy premise that we haven’t seen before and that doesn’t even have recognition on Facebook!
Of course, we have seen it before. Just a few months ago “No Strings Attached” tried the same gambit and didn’t do so well. Both of them do their utmost to jazz up the romantic comedy and save it from the brink with exciting new ideas. Yet the problem with the genre is a bit deeper. Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but if it’s painfully clear that a couple will end up together no matter what, the movie loses a lot of dramatic tension. I’m not advocating that romantic comedies should all end in break-ups (though it would be refreshing now and again), but a filmmaker should be very careful. Putting bells and whistles onto a sinking ship doesn’t make it go down any slower.
The first problem is the believability of the relationship. It takes far too long for Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis to work up any genuine chemistry and make their inevitable love story plausible. They don’t even seem to be into each other until they sit down and logically choose to start fooling around. Admittedly, that’s the basic premise of the film, but it hampers our ability to believe in their love story once things start getting deeper than just sex. “No Strings Attached” tries avoiding this by opening with a long back story between its characters, so that it’s easier for us to understand the first time they have sex. Timberlake and Kunis suddenly just logically decide to fool around, which works a bit less.
Writer-director Will Gluck attempts to artfully avoid the problem by throwing sex all over the place. I don’t think I’ve seen this much nudity from Hollywood since “Love and Other Drugs.” It’s a great way to distract us, and the hilarious raunchy sequences between our oft-naked stars are some of the most entertaining parts of the movie. Timberlake and Kunis are both confident and effortlessly charismatic, supplying the kind of vulgar humor that actually makes you laugh – this is the funniest R-rated studio comedy since “Bridesmaids.” The problem is that once all of the sex is over we find ourselves watching an inexplicable couple do their utmost to find their way to a pre-written happy ending.
And boy, is that last half-hour terrible. Once they put their clothes on and start acting serious the movie completely loses its gusto and falls back into the rom-com doldrums. To be fair, “No Strings Attached” falls apart around the same time. That film may not have nearly as much nudity, but Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher have better chemistry outside of the bedroom than these two. Both films chug along relatively effectively for an hour or so.
In the end, both Gluck and “Strings” director Ivan Reitman try using the same trick to keep things interesting; the Rolodex. The supporting casts of these movies are a laundry list of talented and funny people, as if the filmmakers realized what they were working with and called all of their amusing friends to help out. “Friends with Benefits” boasts Emma Stone, Andy Samberg, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Masi Oka, Nolan Gould and even Shaun White. There’s even a rom-com-within-a-rom-com surprise with uncredited Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. They all do a great job, steal a scene or two here and there, and then fall away as the plot winds down to its inevitably uninteresting conclusion.
So where does that leave us? The “sex without responsibility” angle has now been done twice, and to equally unimpressive effect. Sure, it’s an excuse to make a lot of dirty jokes and send some very attractive naked people across the screen a few times. But as it turns out, the “sex buddies” angle is all talk and no gumption. Not for a second do you doubt the inevitable committed and loving relationship that will cap off the hundred minutes of waffling.
“Friends with Benefits” opens today everywhere.
Recommended If You Like: “No Strings Attached”; “Love and Other Drugs”; Justin Timberlake’s ass