Fringe Benefits

Friends with Benefits takes the bold step of clearly outlining  what’s wrong with most romantic comedies — the drawn-out inevitability, the unbelievable endings — then following that outline step by step, saying, “Yeah,  but that’s those otherromantic comedies.”  But if you’re going to so blatantly call out the genre in which your film falls, you might want to do more than just pay lip service to how tired the tropes are in the hope that it makes the audience overlook them when you use them.  And you might want to make sure the supporting cast doesn’t completely overshadow your two leads.Not to say that Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis don’t ooze charisma in this.  They’re young, they’re sexy, they’re funny, and they obviously have great chemistry together.  It’s just that they don’t do enough to alleviate the predictability of their story.  You know from the moment of their meet-cute, with Timberlake’s Dylan seeing Kunis’ Jamie impishly perched atop a baggage return conveyor, that these two are going to end up together.  And that’s part of the problem the film has with its own premise.  These aren’t two long-time friends who commiserate over their romantic misfortunes and decide to embark on a no-strings physical relationship.  These are two strangers who have such undeniable romantic chemistry when they first  meet — Jamie spends the day touring Dylan around New York, even taking him to her personal retreat atop a skyscraper — that, even given the fact they’ve just been burned in their previous relationships, it doesn’t make sense they decide to just be friends.  It’s simply a cinematic contrivance designed to delay the inevitable, but what it really delays is the beginning of the actual plot, since we have to get all this out of the way before we can move on to the “friends with benefits” portion of the film.

So then it’s all aboard the romantic complication express, where everybody sees how perfect Jamie and Dylan are for each except, of course, Jamie and Dylan, or at least they don’t see it at the same time.  Here’s where the other problem rears its head.  For all the charm Timberlake and Kunis bring to their parts, there’s a much better movie lurking in every relationship they have except the one with each other.  There’s Dylan dealing with his Alzheimer-stricken father.  There’s Jamie dealing with her liberated, undependable mother.  And there’s Woody Harrelson, who, as Dylan’s boisterously gay friend and co-worker, flat-out steals this movie out from under everybody.  It’s not a stereotyped performance, just a man who’s incredibly confident and secure in his orientation, and Harrelson milks it for all its worth.  He’s fun and surprising and a real bright spot amid the formula.

Here’s the thing though:  when the end does roll around, and Dylan makes his big romantic gesture that he promises is much better than the one from the tawdry romantic movie Jamie loves, I smiled despite myself.  Timberlake and Kunis have enough going for them that, despite it being a conclusion they should have come to an hour ago, you’re happy to see them finally come to their senses.  Even if it means having ignored ours for a little while.

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