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. Read Genevieve Yue’s review of Friends with Benefits.