Last summer, Will Gluck’s Easy A was one of my biggest surprises of the year. When I saw the trailer, I didn’t realize that it would be a whip-smart satire of high school and high school films. Gluck’s newest film, Friends with Benefits, may not rise to the heights of his debut, but it shows that the filmmaker has a great knack of taking recognizable, even clichéd, tropes of popular movies and turning them on their ear.
The plot of Friends with Benefits breaks zero ground — in fact, we’ve seen exactly the same story earlier this year in No Strings Attached. These are easy films to compare, but they have totally different levels of ambition. Where No Strings Attached is perfectly happy as an entry in the romantic-comedy genre, Friends with Benefits approaches the material with cynicism, as do the characters. Much like Easy A, the characters know the conventions of rom-coms and battle this ideology within their own relationships. Many of the best jokes in the film come from direct references to popular films and a fake film that the characters watch in the movie.
Some who see the film will be disappointed that it seems to cop out by the end and becomes the standard romantic comedy that it often mocks. While it does soften a little by the end, there is more bite than is obvious on the surface. The film does a really nice job of setting up hidden jokes for the end of the movie and, although I won’t spoil specifics, some of the clichés that it uses for its happily-ever-after conclusion can be seen in this way. There is always a fine line when it comes to satire, and Friends with Benefits comes awfully close to that ever changing line, but it worked for me.
Another thing which this film holds over its clone is the chemistry between its stars. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are both immensely likable and seem like they actually like each other. Kunis especially is great in the picture as a young woman with equal doses of cynicism and hopeless romantic. She is certainly a girl written by a man, but she is smart and sincere. Timberlake completely redeems himself for Bad Teacher and shows that he can carry a film on his charm. And even though the movie tries hard to make him uncool at times, he plays his traits admirably (it doesn’t really work in lessening his superstar sheen though). The film is rounded out by a superb supporting cast who deliver comedic support (Woody Harrelson and Patricia Clarkson) and emotional weight (another great supporting performance from Richard Jenkins).
Friends with Benefits is a romantic comedy that tries to break the genre. It doesn’t completely succeed, but this is a particular case where the ambition helps add to what could have been an entirely meaningless film. Importantly, there are enough laughs to make it enjoyable regardless of its measure of success. With two hot, young stars and the direction from a filmmaker on the rise, I think the movie can work for both those who love rom-coms and those who hate them, which is probably as good of praise as you can give a movie of this kind.