Review: Friends With Benefits

Friends With Benefits is one of those strange comedies which doesn’t quite know what it wants to be but actually benefits from it as it finds new ground. For the set up, we are given a raunchy sex comedy with the now obligatory celebrity cameos (an amusing Shaun White, Masi Oka, Emma Stone, Andy Samberg) which have become a staple of films where people say exaggerated versions of what they’re really thinking – “I’m whispering in the ear of a deadman.” This sort of thing has become a staple of grown up R-Rated comedies since Judd Apatow unleashed Knocked Up and changed the face of comedy after the teen college movies of the late 90’s and early 00’s. It can become a little tedious but manages to remain crudely amusing. Woody Harrelson as GQ’s gay Sports Editor who resembles a more outrageous Champ Kind pushes the 15 rating but it’s Woody Harrelson so, you know, it’s ok if every sentence that exits his character involves a penis. Snowboarding god, Shaun White also entertains in a small role which could have easily become the creakily wooden performance of Mike Tyson in The Hangover. If the comedy seems predictable, the story also starts out this way. After breaking up with Emma StoneJustin Timberlake’s trendy online editor is headhunted by Mila Kunis – also freshly removed from Andy Samberg – for a job as editor at GQ in New York. They start hanging out as friends but things quickly develop as they realise they miss the joys of unemotionally involved sex after being heartbroken by their exes and start a journey of amusingly casual bedtime shenanigans. It appears they have the situation under control and the sex is purely “for fun” but, well, you know what happens…

Director Will Gluck arrives on the film having previously made the smart, brilliant Easy A and you imagine Friends With Benefits to achieve the same level of quality. Not quite but there are flashes of something deeper to the characters. When the parents come in to play, a new level of humanity is injected, particularly in Richard Jenkins’ Alzheimers affected father who, in the last reel, unveils a heart wrenching secret in order to help his son make a decision. Jenkins anchors the film with a story which removes the film from the typical pitch of sexy people with high paying jobs they never seem to be doing who have relationship ‘issues’ and at this point in the film, the story becomes less about sex and conversations, which give the impression Americans are wildly oversexed and more about the nature of love, family and friendship. It is with the performances that this film holds up. Kunis and Timberlake are both extremely likeable stars and seem incredibly comfortable with each other and the glut of bedroom antics. Timberlake once again turns in a solid performance which proves he is as skilled with comedy as he is with the more dramatic touches. Kunis is sparky and emotional which is something previous roles have shown she does very well. Patricia Clarkson struggles slightly as Kunis’ underwritten bohemian mother but she remains dignified despite her daliances.

As the smart-phone inspired end credits swoosh across the screen, you start to reflect on the last 109 minutes and realise where the film got it right. The secret is that Gluck actively avoids and even makes fun of rom-com staples. A running joke in the film involves that horrible, plinky plonky music which permeates every ‘funny’ moment in a lot of US output of the last ten years and it is this kind of self-awareness that is perhaps key to the film’s enjoyment. It plays with the expectations we have of the genre and although this probably started out as an identikit vehicle for breakout stars, one suspects that the studio took a chance and let the creative team have fun. The result is a comedy which won’t have the same impact as other releases in recent memory but is worthy of a night at the cinema and something the makers won’t be ashamed at putting on their cv.

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