FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS. Starring: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, and Bryan Greenberg. Directed by Will Gluck. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong sexual references and sex scenes). 109 min.
This is an American romantic comedy about two people, Jamie and Dylan, who become friends. They both decide to make their relationship sexual, but want no commitment or consequences from doing so.
Jamie (Mila Kunis) works as a head-hunter for a recruiting agency in New York, and she is trying to recruit Dylan (Justin Timberlake) as Art Director for a job with a high profile magazine, GQ, in New York. Dylan is given the job, but doesn’t want to move from Los Angeles, and Jamie spends time with him trying to talk him around. They form a friendship, and conclude that sexual intimacy between them need not have emotional consequences. Both have been burnt by love before, and neither wants commitment. They have sex, and after a while Jamie pulls away from the relationship and tells Dylan that she would like to stop, and begins dating another man, Parker (Bryan Greenberg), with disastrous results. Dylan picks up the pieces, and takes Jamie to his house in California, where Jamie meets his sister Annie (Jenna Elfman), and sick father (Richard Jenkins). Past feelings are aroused, and Jamie and Dylan again share a night of sexual intimacy.
Next morning, Jamie overhears a conversation between Dylan and Annie suggesting Dylan doesn’t really care for her and she departs, hurt. Following a conversation with his friend Tommy (Woody Harrelson), Dylan decides to date Jamie seriously, and finally wins her affection back in Grand Central Station, New York City, where it is clear that, this time around, romance between them is going to have consequences. There is an eccentric performance from Jamie’s mother (Patricia Clarkson), who is not used to committing to anything, but who loves her daughter, and Dylan’s father (Richard Jenkins), afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, who has a lucid moment in an airport restaurant that helps his son reappraise his relationship to Jamie.
There are lots of frantic couplings in this movie, and Kunis and Timberlake work very hard at working well together. Both show good comic timing, and they are helped by a sharp script. Living up to the film’s classification, the film is racy in the sex that it shows, there is a lot of crude humour in the movie’s scripting, and frequently the film descends into romantic clichés that don’t work well when the movie begins the drama of true attachment, where it finishes. The title of the movie, “Friends with Benefits” is a cynical take on sex without attachment, and is an interesting variation on a book published in 2010, titled “Friends without Benefits”, by Ron Luce. The messages the film gives about relationships are decidedly mixed. Hollywood-style romantic comedies typically create unrealistic expectations across the sexes about boy-girl attachments, and in this film the victory of love over convenient intimacy only partially represents a return to proper values.
This is a movie that has likeable performances by Kunis and Timberlake, but one has to leave behind the moral messages that it conveys. For adolescents who respond emotionally to the film, parents will need to talk through the values they may acquire from seeing this way of dating and forming attachments. Although there are positive messages in the movie about true love, it is arguable that choosing not to be emotionally engaged, but with so-called “benefits” thrown in, represents the media cashing in on, and also reinforcing, what is happening in the world today.
As a movie, the film entertains with the human drama of two people who eventually find each other, and there is some style in the way it tells its story. But as an essay on intimacy, the film is misguided in what it preaches, and the movie never really recovers from its first half that sets the stage for genuine friendship in entirely the wrong way.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out August 18, 2011.