Engineered to appear transgressive without upsetting auds’ sense of good, old-fashioned commitment, “Friends With Benefits” stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as sexually liberated adults who attempt to sustain a strictly physical relationship without all those pesky emotional attachments — treating sex “like playing tennis.” But even tennis begins with “love,” and before long, sassy irreverence gives way to feeble romantic-comedy conventions. Though unlikely to match the smash success of the summer’s other R-rated laffers, “Friends” should draw plenty of couples keen on seeing its attractive cast, who show as much skin as possible within the confines of their respective nudity clauses.
Written by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and Will Gluck (from a story by Newman, Merryman and Harley Peyton), this smarter-than-average script marks the second studio release in nearly six months to tackle the “sex friends” phenomenon, after Ashton Kutcher-Natalie Portman starrer “No Strings Attached.” As with that film, the raunchy premise here is just a smokescreen for the sort of squarely moralistic, altar-bound comedy of which even Jane Austen would approve.
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Real-life sex buddies typically don’t bother with dinner and a movie, so the formula must be tweaked to appeal to those who do. Ergo, “Friends With Benefits” faces a baked-in identity crisis: As thoroughly modern twentysomethings, Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) consider themselves immune to all the chick-pic tricks, from sentimental music to phony finales — what Dylan calls “Prince Charming shit.” But surely they doth protest too much, for the two happen to be starring in precisely the sort of film they so openly denounce, replete with pop songs and Cameron Crowe-worthy declarations of love.
Director Gluck (“Easy A”) treats “Friends With Benefits” like a fresh spin on an old Tracy and Hepburn scenario, to the extent that you could lift the sexual element right out of the movie and still be left with a feature-length screwball comedy: Executive headhunter Jamie invites Los Angeles-based art director Dylan to New York, where she sets him up with a dream job at GQ magazine. In order to make her commission, Jamie must ensure that Dylan keeps the job for a year, so she gives him a personal tour of the city and invites him into her circle of friends.
Insert no-strings-shagging subplot here. It’s intercourse without intimacy that Dylan and Jamie both seek, recognizing that after a decade of failed relationships, they’re both too emotionally damaged to try dating again anytime soon. So it’s straight to the bedroom, resulting in the film’s most uproarious setpiece as the two bedmates, freed from the tyranny of trying to impress one another, find the confidence to assert their idiosyncratic likes and dislikes.
But the script exhausts its originality awfully quickly, with subsequent hookups recycling jokes from other movies, including that overused gag where both parties claim it was a one-time thing before passionately going at it again. Cutesy iPad and flashmob scenes suggest opportunistic fad association more than genuine pop-culture proficiency, which could explain why the script seems so clueless about the logistics of actual “sex friends” relationships, which tend to dissolve around the time a dateable third party comes along.
Having already given Patricia Clarkson the funniest role of her career in “Easy A,” Gluck once again taps the actress’ comedic side to play Jamie’s man-eating mom, who embarrasses the couple by showing up unannounced during one of their sleepovers (the overnight component being the first clue the sex isn’t as casual as they think). As things get more serious, Dylan flies Jamie to L.A. for the Fourth of July weekend, making her the first girl he’s introduced to his family, played by Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman and “Modern Family’s” Nolan Gould.
With a supporting cast of this caliber (including Woody Harrelson as GQ’s unapologetically gay sports editor and Emma Stone and Andy Samberg as angry exes), the pic lands most of its laughs — this despite the fact that scenes teased in trailers but absent from the film suggest last-minute tweaks. Jason Segel and Rashida Jones even turn up uncredited in a sappy film-within-the-film, spelling out the kind of romantic comedy “Friends With Benefits” desperately doesn’t want to be.
And yet, from its sitcom-style lighting to the artificial misunderstandings introduced to wedge apart the would-be lovers, this sheep in wolf’s clothing proves as predictable and benign as everything that’s come before. Pic’s key revelation is paying off the gamble of its two leads: Kunis is a natural with comedy, and now we know she can carry a movie, while Timberlake exudes the kind of star wattage that put Will Smith on top.