Any film that can make a flash mob look like actual fun must be doing something right.
There’s a knowing irony underlying Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis’ presence in Hollywood’s latest sassy two-step. While a Mickey Mouse Club graduate and boy band pinup-turned-global pop icon, and a child actor-turned-teen sitcom darling are a rom-com match made in heaven, it feels somewhat paradoxical that this champagne union has arrived so soon after The Social Network and Black Swan respectively cemented their dramatic credentials. But then, Friends with Benefits is all about bucking the trend.
Easy A director Will Gluck dedicates a healthy portion of his fuck buddy fairy tale tiptoeing neatly around cliché and name-checking various rom-com trappings. It’s a contrived trick, but the film’s consistent self-awareness makes it far more appetising than other likeminded boy-meets-girl fancies. Even our A-list leads are game for a spot of self-satire – at one point Timberlake emphatically raps along to Kriss Kross’ ‘Jump Jump’.
But if all this puts Friends with Benefits firmly in the alt camp, in contrast to a true indie hit like 2009’s (500) Days of Summer, Gluck’s film is incontrovertibly mainstream at heart, inevitably aligning itself with the blueprint it spends so long deriding. Still, the key to the film’s success is that the characters aren’t Photoshopped rom-com dummies. Sure, Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) are young, gorgeous and successful, but they’re flawed, too. Even more than the opening ‘she’s emotionally damaged; he’s a commitaphobe' disclaimer accounts for.
As the details of their pasts and private lives are revealed, we become acquainted with both characters on a personal level rarely afforded by films of a superficial ilk. We meet Jamie’s nomadic, sponger mother (Patricia Clarkson) and Dylan’s dementia-suffering father (Richard Jenkins on top form), and while these supporting turns are largely played for laughs the moral core they provide is indispensable. This is a relationship built as much on the sharing of feelings as the exposure of flesh. It’s friends first, benefits second.
The evils of the genre aren’t entirely absent – the less said about Woody Harrelson’s painfully ill-conceived gay BFF the better – but with Kunis and Timberlake irresistible from the off, you’ll forgive the occasional lapse into shallower territory. Besides, any film that can make a flash mob look like actual fun must be doing something right.
Can JT and Kunis bring sexy back?
And then some! Rock-solid rom-com delight.
Consider our faith in Hollywood romance restored. For now.