Sony // 2011 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 5th, 2011
Dylan: Why do women think the only way to get men to do what they want is to manipulate them?
Jamie: History, personal experience, romantic comedies.
One of my favorite moments in the career of comedian Bill Hicks occurs during a live show, when Hicks tells marketing and advertising agents to "kill yourself." When the joke falls a bit flat, he mimics a hypothetical audience member who is in marketing and says, "Ah, Bill's going for that anti-marketing dollar." It's a real moment that acknowledges the chief strength/drawback of advertising: it can exploit anything, even hatred of advertising. The Hollywood romantic comedy has reached a similar stage. The studios accept that the primary audience is romantic comedies are women, with the occasional man who gets brought along as a date. That leads them to make predictable stories about love, romance, and sex, with story beats that are utterly predictable. However, not everybody wants that, and Hollywood wants to capture those people. The result is Friends with Benefits, and anti-romantic-comedy romantic comedy. Although it's a transparent attempt to win some points with people who hate the genre, its star chemistry and solid laughs make it work.
Dylan (Justin Timberlake, Southland Tales) just broke up with his girlfriend. When he gets a job offer from GQ, part of the deal is secured by "headhunter" Jamie (Mila Kunis, Black Swan), who has just broken up with her boyfriend. Neither of them wants a relationship, so they try the "friends with benefits route." Can you guess how things end up?
Let's be clear; I enjoyed Friends with Benefits in direct proportion with how low my expectations were going in. I grew up in the era of N*SYNC, and no matter how many times Justin Timberlake wows me in a movie (which he does consistently), I take an immediate dislike to his films because of his early music. Similarly, I never got into That '70s Show, so aside from a strong performance in Black Swan, I have no opinion of Mila Kunis. Furthermore, my enjoyment of the romcom genre is always tinged with the awareness that I enjoy romantic comedies despite their flaws, not because of them.
With that said, I was surprisingly charmed by Friends with Benefits. I actually chuckled out loud a few times, which is rare for the genre. Though there are some missteps (like Alzheimer's humor), the dialogue between Jamie and Dylan is just the right combo of believably human but cleverly romantic. It also doesn't hurt that the stars look good without their duds. Both actors are willing to have fun with their roles and take them just seriously enough to be effective. Their chemistry is what sells Friends with Benefits, and it's exactly the chemistry that Ashton Kutcher couldn't work up with Natalie Portman.
Some people might complain that although they're attractive enough as human specimens, Kunis and Timberlake don't sizzle together on screen. I'd have to agree with that assessment, but it's beside the point. This isn't supposed to be Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie in Original Sin; the film is called Friends with Benefits, not F@*k Buddies! The fact that the two seem more comfortable with each other than "Oh my god, I have to take my pants off now" works in the story's favor. These two actually seem like the kind of people who would realize, "Oh, this person is hot, we should have sex without getting emotionally involved." Sure, they're more attractive than most, but their chemistry feels much more normal.
The film also does a pretty fun job balancing its romcom roots with anti-romcom sentiment. Both the leads say something negative about the expectations Hollywood places on romance and sex in romantic comedies. While it's not a huge laugh, the self-referential jabs feel appropriately played.
The film was shot digitally, and it's been transferred to this Blu-ray with all the bells and whistles intact. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is sharp from start to finish, and colors pop appropriately when the duo hit Times Square. Despite a number of scenes in darker places black levels are consistent. Noise and other artifacts aren't a problem either. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track keeps the dialogue audible in the center channel, and the occasional use of music and effects is well-balanced and clear.
The extras kick off with a commentary featuring director Will Gluck (who also gave us Easy A) with Timberlake and Kunis. They do a great job balancing production info with light discussion of the on-set vibe and general conversation. It's well worth a listen for fans of the film or the actors. We also get just shy of 10 minutes of deleted scenes, including a few funny bits that are as good as jokes left in the film. Exclusive to this Blu-ray are a pair of featurettes. One looks at the locations of the film, while the other delves into the making of the flash mob in an early scene. Finally, there's a propriety format for digital downloads that Sony calls "Ultraviolet" The download code is actually on the shrink wrap (rather than in a separate insert like other releases), so be careful not to throw it away.
If you've developed a hatred for either Timberlake or Kunis (or even want them to sizzle on screen together), then this isn't the film for you. Despite its self-referential nods to the terrors romantic comedies inflict on men and women, there's very little about Friends With Benefits that an astute viewer won't be able to predict from the premise alone. Despite its R rating, the film probably isn't as raunchy as some fans would like.
Friends With Benefits works because Timberlake and Kunis are likeable actors who share a decent chemistry on screen. The film won't redefine the genre When Harry Met Sally-style, but it's a good choice to show to a reluctant romantic comedy viewer. The technical aspects of the disc are impeccable, and the extras informative. Worth a rental at the least.
This flick benefits from being not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Descriptive)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Digital Copy
* Official Site