Wednesday 21 March 2012

On DVD: "Friends with Benefits"

Friends with Benefits is one of those po-mo romcoms that wants to instruct us how romcoms should be watched, and made; it should be annoying as all get out. Good news: the director is Will Gluck, whose Easy A deconstructed the high-school movie so entertainingly. Gluck is developing a sure and identifiable touch: he turns the picture into, if not one for the ages, then an enjoyable one night stand - and one preferable to that offered by the similarly themed No Strings Attached. It begins with two couples splitting - Justin Timberlake from Emma Stone in L.A., Mila Kunis from Andy Samberg in New York. (Already, Gluck seems to be anticipating the alternative romcom reality - in which Stone's character, who likes John Mayer songs, and Samberg, who seems needy, get together - that would provide the basis for 30 Rock's "Martin Luther King Day" skit.)

After Kunis's corporate headhunter recruits Timberlake's marketing maven for a job at GQ, the pair begin hanging out, first on the couch (in front of dumb romcoms, which allow the writers to editorialise at some length), and then - in the absence of anything more serious on the horizon - in the bedroom, reasoning there's no reason sex shouldn't, in the modern age, be like Wii tennis: a fun burst of mutual physical activity, followed by a brisk sporting handshake, and a parting of the ways. The trouble, of course, comes when our lovers-but-not-lovers go those ways, with the aim of hooking up with other people, at which point they realise they really really like one another, and have to talk themselves into admitting as such.

I've seen less predictable romcoms, and it's true Friends with Benefits doesn't stretch itself to granting either of its lead characters anything like a serious love rival: Timberlake has a fling with a gal who has a thing for his underarm hair (and can thus be easily dismissed as a freak), while Kunis briefly pairs off with a bland doctor who, whatever his other charms, almost certainly wasn't in *N-SYNC. That said, Gluck knows how to make a good-looking, nice-sounding movie, which not every director working in this field with this much studio money at their disposal does - and, more impressively, he knows how to keep at least that surface semi-spontaneous, even as the plot mechanics clunk into place beneath it.

There are, it has to be said, worse ways to spend one's leisure time than watching Timberlake and Kunis using one another's bodies: their couplings have the snap and tang of the bubblegum one or other of them is oft-observed jawing mid-coitus, even if the shooting style clings to that very American prudery that prevents the camera showing precisely what (or who) is going down. (To summarise, for our celebrity nudity fans: that may be JT's butt, but Kunis is all double, all the way.) Gluck wisely retains Patricia Clarkson from his earlier film as another broad-minded mom, and drafts in Jenna Elfman (who should give all sports-intolerant women something to mutter while their men go on about the game) as Timberlake's sister, alongside - of all people - Woody Harrelson as a butch picture editor.

Friends with Benefits sometimes has problems maintaining its hipness boner: all the au courant references written into the script back in 2010 (flashmobs, Captain Sully, Shaun White) run the risk of having disappeared into the zeitgeist's recycle bin but twelve months later. (Easy A may have had it easier riffing on The Scarlet Letter and the Demi Moore movie that sprang from it, texts now ancient enough to have become, in their own ways, canonical.) And it struggles to get over the hump of having to get serious, at which point - with its leads left staring into Manhattan's twinkling night lights while a slow song swirls around them - it begins to resemble exactly those films it wants to lampoon. Stone had the dramatic chops, in Easy A, to convincingly and involvingly play hurt; the altogether sheenier, Teflon-coated Timberlake and Kunis - of "Sexyback" and Family Guy respectively - don't quite.

I think it's fair to say Gluck probably isn't going to be the most original voice in American movies; like his characters here, you catch him struggling to reject outright the crutches and cliches that have been thrown up around the romcom in its dotage. But he's open to the right influences, at least: the better stretches in these first two films take characters and scenarios that have grown tired from countless mainstream outings and imbue them with the honesty - and, to some extent, the frankness - one finds in the New American Comedy of Judd Apatow et al. (One of the spoof romcoms the FWBs watch happens to star Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, and you could well imagine another alternate, albeit less shiny version of the movie with these two in the leads.)

Even the subplot involving Timberlake's Alzheimer's-impaired father (Richard Jenkins, often trouserless, not quite fully integrated, which may be the point) has echoes of what the early, funny Cameron Crowe was trying to do with John Mahoney's tax-dodging in Say Anything...: an attempt to get these kids to learn something from the actions (or inaction) of their elders and supposedly betters. (See also: the quietly heartbreaking Lisa Kudrow/Thomas Haden Church business in Easy A.) We can but hope there are more Singles and Almost Famouses in Gluck's future than there are Elizabethtowns and Vanilla Skys - but the signs are promising. Just as Easy A did something entirely unexpected with Natasha Bedingfield's long-forgotten "Pocketful of Sunshine", Friends with Benefits earns bonus points for its wholly enthusiastic revival of Semisonic's "Closing Time": the kind of dumbly sincere recording that always did deserve better than hipster sneering.

Friends with Benefits is now available on DVD. The author of this piece does not endorse the chewing of gum in the bedroom.

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