If you’re gonna go skinny-dipping, don’t just dip a toe in the water. This nudity-centric aphorism is appropriate when discussing “Friends With Benefits”, but not because the leads Justin Timberlake & Mila Kunis are nude for the majority of the film’s running time.
No, it’s because director Will Gluck tries skinny-dipping — he opens “Friends With Benefits” as a cynical, jaded response to every cookie-cutter, common-place romantic comedy you’ve ever seen.
But in not following through with this tone and in fact becoming exactly what it condemned, Gluck ends up merely dipping a toe. Damn shame. But despite the disconnect between Will Gluck’s vision and what he eventually executed, there’s more than enough entertainment to be had here.
Most of it can be attributed to the interplay, both verbal and physical, between Timberlake and Kunis. Timberlake continues to prove himself as a truly gifted actor, with sharp comedic timing and, as displayed in last year’s “Social Network”, an impressive ability to handle heavy moments of emotional gravitas.
Kunis, whose comedic side most people watch every week on “Family Guy”, offers a capable performance in the realm of both drama and comedy. She plays a strong, capable woman, which may not seem like much, but considering the unrealistic, uptight way in which romantic comedies so frequently portray women, it’s certainly a step up.
But the dynamic between the two leads is all that it should be – vibrant, flirty, rapid-fire, and quite sensual. Timberlake and Kunis share a moment that all romantic comedies should sport yet almost none do – there’s a singular moment where you can see the two look at one another and truly click. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it makes the movie.
Given the predictability of the genre, it’s often the quality of the journey rather than the surprise of the destination that separates the good from the bad. And the ensemble cast “Friends With Benefits” sports ensures that the film never loses its comedic momentum.
The opening scene is no doubt the strongest – a rapid-cut montage in which Timberlake and Kunis break up with Emma Stone and Andy Samberg. In the space of about four, five minutes, the film establishes a biting tone, the characters’ personalities, and deploys some of the funniest lines I’ve heard so far this year. Emma Stone in particular gets the film’s best quip, at the expense of one John Mayer and his loyal fans.
Further supporting players of note include Woody Harrelson as Timberlake’s flamboyantly gay co-worker. As far as I’m concerned, Harrelson’s one of the most steadily engaging supporting actors in Hollywood, bringing the same zest and watchability no matter what he’s acting in. Another is Richard Jenkins, who, continuing in a streak of roles as leading-roles’-fathers (“Step Brothers”, “Dear John”), plays Timberlake’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Jenkins, as he tends to, brings a truly warm, human quality to his part.
It’s both the versatility of the script and charm of the actors bringing it to the screen that gives “Friends With Benefits” its charm and momentum. But it’s the disturbing quickness with which writer-director Will Gluck abandons his original vision to make a more commercial, digestible product that prevents “Friends With Benefits” from ever being something truly special. B-