It’s no secret that in real life those wild, passionate, romantic relationships you see in movies never work out in the long run. The marriages most likely to stay together are the ones built on friendship. People seemed to know that, up until about fifty years ago, when Hollywood started pedaling this idealized version of romance which eventually created a lot of really nice Julia Roberts movies. Friends with Benefits seems to know that too and so when Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) become sex friends, there’s reason to hope that eventually their sex friendship will turn into a real, long-term relationship. They prattle on about how this is just a holding pattern until they find real romance, but hidden within the subtext of the film is the idea that romance is a mirage, and that what they have right here and now is actually better than anything they could get from flowers and candies, and dates had in horse-drawn carriages.
In fact for at least fifty-percent of the film Friends with Benefits seems entirely dedicated to this ideal, so much so that it spends a lot of its running time on fairly unfunny scenes in which Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis sit around mocking those sweep-you-off-your-feet romantic clichés. This makes it all the stranger that the movie gives in to those same clichés, in the end. Director Will Gluck’s film seems sort of sheepish about it while it’s happening, as if the script’s looking for some other kind of out and just can’t find it. In the process it becomes almost desperate for some other way to woo the audience, even going so far as to throw in a random dose of Alzheimer’s, but at some point the whole production simply shrugs its shoulders and walks away into the credits sequence as if to say, “we just couldn’t think of anything else.”
Though Friends with Benefits eventually loses that battle against clichés, that fight is the most interesting thing about the movie by far. The cast seems to sense there’s the potential for something special going on here, and they’re willing to take things to the limit to try and get there. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis quite literally bare it all in the name of attempting to create sex scenes which move beyond the usual, chaste, PG-13, couple under sheet stuff you’re used to in other films. Like the rest of the movie, those scenes too never quite get there, but the pursuit of something both engaging and real is admirable, even when they fail to get there, in the end.
There’s a lot to admire about Friends with Benefits and, aside from those cliché dissection scenes, some of its even funny. Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are a capable couple, though I can’t help but wonder if both of them aren’t better suited to a career as brilliant character actors. Timberlake in particular, seems almost too talented to be wasted as a stiff, standard, romantic leading man.
I’d like to tell you that Friends with Benefits is the first movie ever made in which two people try to have sex without romantic entanglement, and no one ever gets jealous. I’d like to tell you that this is the first movie of its kind in which both participants realize that real friendship is all they need, they have tons of fun in the bedroom, and eventually forge a permanent life together based on mutual trust and respect. Instead the best I can tell you is that Friends with Benefits wants to be that movie, seems to know it needs to be that movie, and then tries mightily to be that movie. But in the end, when it comes right down to it, it can’t find a way to make a movie involving this premise without those clichés. The movie dodges it, to some extend, by finding Hollywood romance inside their existing relationship, but it still smacks of something that still misses the mark the movie’s going for. Maybe that’ll kill it for you in the end, but I still had fun with it.