It is sometimes amazing to see a well-worn Hollywood formula repackaged for the umpteenth time and still work. Such is the case of “Friends with Benefits,” a star vehicle for Justin Timberlake (art director Dylan) and Mila Kunis (headhunter Jamie). Before the opening titles there are two breakups: Dylan’s girl in LA dumps him and Jamie’s boyfriend in New York dumps her — just as both are dragging their tardy guys to their favorite chick flicks. Via a cute bit of editing (kudos to Tia Nolan) auds are led to believe briefly that it is one breakup — Dylan and Jamie — until the bi-coastal synchronicity sets in. Both battle scarred veterans retire from the field. No more romance for them.
Jamie lures Dylan to New York for a job interview to be the new art director of GQ Magazine. He aces the interview. The pair become fast friends — as in we like each other but there’s no sex. That changes when Jamie utters, “God! I want sex.” Can two great friends have a sexual relationship that is “no relationship, no emotions, just sex, whatever happens?” Auds will quickly figure out the answer. As Stephen Sondheim wrote in one of the lyrics to A Little Night Music, eventually the nets descend. The questions for “Friends with Benefits” are “How long will the arrangement last?”, “When will the nets descend?”, and “What happens after the inevitable breakup?”
While skein is busy answering said questions, pic reveals itself as a valentine to New York City, which is as much a character as any of the cast. In the opening reel Jamie takes Dylan on a tour of New York to sell him on leaving LA. It’s full “fish out of water” Angelino in Gotham jokes, but it works — both cinematically and as a plot device. Dylan is sold. Good thing, too, because by the time they get to the “just sex” part, pic is on to its second reel.
It’s nice to see Timberlake in a non-smarmy role, which he handles convincingly, but it is Kunis who steals her scenes as the tough, fast-talking, wisecracker. Supporting roles are notable. Patricia Clarkson does a star-turn as Jamie’s goofy, ex-hippie mom wherein there is a running gag about the nationality of Jamie’s dad. Woody Harrelson has the unenviable task of being comic relief in a comedy. His over-the-top gay sports editor sports more cliché gay jock jokes than your critic imagined exist. To his credit, he plays the role big, bold, and farcical — think of Zach Galifianakis minus the annoying aspects. Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s dad suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and Jenna Elfman as sister Annie anchor pic’s serious scenes. Jenkins comes across as sympathetic rather than pathetic. Elfman has the least to work with but does well with what scribes Harley Peyton, David A. Newman, Keith Merryman and Will Gluck (who also directed) give her as the primary caregiver for dad and her son, a ten-year-old tuxedoed magician (Nolan Gould) whose trick failures are another one of pic’s myriad running gags. In this regard “Friends with Benefits” bares careful scrutiny. There are no loose ends. Everything that happens in the picture happens for a reason and will probably happen again to move the plot along — or at least leave auds saying, “I knew that was coming.” Sharp-eyed viewers will notice Paul Mazursky’s 1969 sexual revolution comedy, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” unspooling on a TV in the background of one scene. It is one of pic’s many inside-film references.
Plot hinges on the overheard conversation, a truly shopworn device, but it gets the point across. Jamie, unseen by Annie and Dylan, listens to Dylan argue with his sister that there is no relationship between Jamie and him; that the girl is damaged goods. This leads to the inevitable breakup which takes place on Independence Day weekend at Dylan’s oceanfront boyhood home in what appears to be Santa Barbara.
Rest of pic’s 109 minutes are spent keeping auds guessing whether it will end as a romantic comedy (“Before Sunset”) or a weeper (“The Break-Up”). Dénouement’s impetus comes from two characters both unlikely given their backgrounds and at the same time very likely given Hollywood tradition: The parents. Jenkins’ Mr. Harper in a lucid moment, punctuated by a perfectly timed gag, clarifies Dylan’s thinking. Goofy, unreliable Lorna (Clarkson) does likewise for Jamie. This plot trick has been done to death, but here it enjoys a resurrection.
“Friends with Benefits” is rated R. For once the R rating is right. There’s plenty of language and some pretty hot sex. Children won’t understand it. However, for adults it offers good lensing, adequate sound, and about a laugh a minute — even in the serious scenes.