The 24th Best Movie I Saw This Year: Friends With Benefits

The two stars of Black Swan (Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) both immediately followed up their strange, lesbian-tinged thriller by making movies with the exact same premise: two best friends decide to use each other for sex, with no emotion in it. Since Portman’s version, No Strings Attached, arrived in theaters first, its box office take is higher ($71 million to $55 million), confirming for the millionth time that if you have two movies with the same premise coming out, do whatever you must to make sure that your movie gets out first.

The best example of this: Capote was released about a year before the other Truman Capote movie, Infamous was. It made about $30 million at the box office and was nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Picture. Infamous made barely a million and was immediately forgotten, despite getting similar reviews and having bigger stars. Sometimes timing is twice as important as quality.

That’s the case here, too, as the strong opening for No Strings Attached covered up its less-than-ecstatic reviews (49% on Rotten Tomatoes), while Friends With Benefits was met with surprising acclaim for a featherweight romantic comedy (its Tomatometer is a robust 71%). And as for star power, it’s not like anyone was clamoring to see Ashton Kutcher in this. Or, anything.

Friends With Benefits is exactly what you expect a standard romantic comedy to be. It’s funny that the characters in it protest that rom-coms are silly and unrealistic, because the film couldn’t be more formulaic in how it sets up its pieces. Justin Timberlake is the head of some mercurial web site who gets an interview for the art director job at GQ. Kunis is the head hunter who brings him out to New York and talks him into taking the job. Both jobs are clearly semi-ludicrous choices for these actors, and despite the characters talking constantly about how their life is their work, we rarely actually see them at their offices. They seem to have plenty of time to simply gad about the city and riff on the fickle nature of love. Both talk at a frantic pace, as if their characters are auditioning for a particularly lightweight Aaron Sorkin movie (yes, yes, Timberlake was in Social Network, I know). It features two flash mobs, for chrissakes.

Still, for all its formula, Friends With Benefits is exactly what a romantic comedy should be. It’s frothy and fun and light, and both leads are immensely likable and easy to root for. The movie zips right along to their deciding to become, y’know, “screwfriends”, and doesn’t slow down for a moment after. The supporting pieces are all played by pros doing their best work: Patricia Clarkson playing the horny mother in her second consecutive Will Gluck movie, Woody Harrelson goofing off as Timberlake’s unconventional gay friend, and especially Richard Jenkins as Timberlake’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father, providing a relatively undeserved level of emotional resonance to a silly story. My favorite, though, was Emma Stone playing against type as the bitchy ex-girlfriend, a role she absolutely proved (adorably) unsuited for.

There’s been plenty of complaints about Timberlake as an actor of the “stick to making music” category (oddly, mostly from people who don’t seem to listen to his music at all), but he’s just as good here as any of the bland Kutcher-Zac Efron-Robert Pattinson types that keep getting thrown at us in these movies. I feel he’s better suited to play a supporting type similar to his role in Social Network, but his star’s on the rise and if he wants to spout ridiculous one-liners while firing a handgun for a little while, good for him. Have fun.

Let’s just make sure we see plenty more of Mila Kunis in movies like this. She’s both gorgeous and relatable, a fairly rare combination. She should milk that all she can, because that quality is the reason why people like Meg Ryan and Reese Witherspoon are rolling in dough.

Just don’t let her play a hard-driving headhunter again. It’s just silly.