Friends with Benefits

As Entertainment, Odorless, Colorless, Pointless Yet Strangely Fun in a Shallow Way.

Friends with BenefitsLet’s face it, you have to give the Hollywood studios credit where credit is due. It’s the one place on earth where the word “redundancy” is considered not only a virtue, but a compliment.

Leave it to Hollywood to take a tired, worn out cliché and make not just one, but two movies based on that theme in the same summer. In this case, I’m speaking of the noble principle of good friends having sex while vowing to remain nothing more than amigos. After all, where in the world hasn’t that worked out well for the participants?

As most of you movie lovers know, Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher swam in this shallow water earlier this year in the almost completely ignored No Strings Attached, and now we have Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake doing the same thing in Friends with Benefits. I must confess that even I couldn’t bring myself to see the former, feeling far too personally embarrassed to watch the talented Natalie Portman frolic with Mr. Kutcher, a man with no discernible acting talent of any kind.

On the other hand, the teaming of Kunis and Timberlake was admittedly intriguing for several reasons. First of all, she has proven to be a revelation during her brief time in Hollywood as reflected in her performances in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), The Book of Eli (2010) and last year’s Oscar nominated The Black Swan. Though wildly exotic (who cannot be transfixed by those large eyes), she has shown a distinct flair for both comedy and drama.

And say what you will about Mr. Timberlake, but he’s no Ashton Kutcher. Though the jury is out concerning his acting range, there is no denying that he was completely convincing in his role as the sleazoid businessman who maneuvered his way into a chunk of the Facebook fortune in
last year’s hit The Social Network. Having said that, I’m going to forgive him for appearing in this year’s worst film, Bad Teacher, noting again that he was involved in the only funny scene in that cinematic disaster.

As for Friends with Benefits, let me say that it is a pedestrian, largely predictable film that ends up being a minor guilty pleasure. And that is solely because Timberlake and Kunis are so utterly likeable.

Yes, the movie is largely an excuse for our two stars to reluctantly roll around in the hay semi-clothed as they make love in all of its glorious permutations. Furthermore, they seem to be having a pretty damn good time doing so, and you are likely to have a similar response.

When they are clothed, and this is one hot looking couple, they bicker and fight as expected as the complications of having sex corrosively eats away at their ability to remain friends. All right, who of you still reading this review is now pleading, “Come on, Hammerle, don’t give away the plot!”

Put another way, how can you give away a plot that is largely extraneous to the film itself? Ms. Kunis is a headhunter who lures Timberlake away from his L.A. job for an assignment with GQ Magazine in New York. Interspersed with the expected inside jokes about life in both New York and L.A. you will find some mildly amusing diversions.

In particular Woody Harrelson is wickedly funny, here playing a gay sports editor for GQ. Woody has some of the best lines in the film, as noted in his observation to Timberlake that he “won’t take a ferry anywhere in New York unless it is out to dinner”. Though he doesn’t command much screen time here, he’s quite fun in his small moments.

Also, I should note that one of my favorite actresses, Patricia Clarkson, appears as Ms. Kunis’ dysfunctional mother. Quirky and borderline psychotic, Ms. Clarkson single-handedly elevates her from what would otherwise be a self-centered wretch.

What also helps Friends with Benefits immensely is when Timberlake invites Kunis to go visit his family over a 4th of July weekend. While she is reluctant to do so, she finds herself alone, and finally agrees. What ensues gives Friends with Benefits a needed bit of heart and soul.

More particularly, she learns that Timberlake’s father, played by the outstanding character actor Richard Jenkins, is suffering from Alzheimers.  Jenkins is, as expected, marvelous as a brilliant, thoughtful man gradually succumbing to this tragic condition.

For those of you who may be asking where you may have seen Mr. Jenkins, I urge you to go rent both The Visitor (2007) and last year’s Let Me In. In the former, where he was nominated for an Oscar for best actor, he plays a widower who discovers two undocumented immigrants living in his
condo in New York. What ensues is a magical story where their tragedy literally brings him back to life. In Let Me In, he plays the dower caretaker of a 12-year old vampire, and he is chilling as an obviously tender-hearted man who must supply her with blood.

Friends with Benefits is admittedly lightweight fare at best, but you know that when you are buying your tickets. Among its many transgressions, few exceed the fact that Emma Stone is limited to a cameo appearance at the beginning of the film where she dumps Timberlake. We can only dream of how good this film could have been had they given this extraordinary actress something to wrap her talented hands around.

Regardless, Timberlake and Kunis are cute, endearing and there is a soundtrack that will appeal to your ear. Enough said.