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Friends With Benefits | Review

Crass Timberlake & Kunis Rom Com could have benefited from its own advice to avoid cliche

Director Will Gluck’s (‘Easy A’) clumsy, calculating Friends with Benefits hypocritically mocks the hackneyed conventions of Hollywood romantic comedies while itself aggressively obeying one cliché after another. Lacking charm and humor, it tiresomely substitutes a barrage of sophomoric sex references meant to get the quick, disposable laughs so highly valued in test screenings. Mila Kunis’ lite, down to earth appeal never inflates her underwritten role as an “emotionally damaged” careerist; Justin Timberlake is too self-involved to have on-screen chemistry with anyone but himself. Spastic pacing indicates editing by committee; 75% of the movie seems to be presented in montage, and 90% of it is drenched in either vapid pop music or the kind of tender folk rock meant to suit the more contemplative moods of the modern frat boy. Gluck & co. seem to believe that the story’s faux-timely premise — Can two friends fuck and not fall deeply in love? — excuses brain-dead plotting and shallow characterization. Friends expects approval merely for being self-aware; but any 2-year-old toddler is self-aware — that doesn’t mean it isn’t mainly an undeveloped annoyance.

Kunis is Jamie, a headstrong headhunter who convinces Timberlake’s Dylan, a hotshot web site editor, to leave the West Coast and take a job in New York as art director at GQ magazine. He moves to NYC, they hang out, they decide to have sex without love, but then — are emotional needs rearing their ugly heads?

Friends condescends to other films that are set in New York City but shot elsewhere, then schizophrenically proceeds to swindle the audience with its own whitewashed, tourist-baiting simulacrum, a New York where class and race do not exist, where no one pays for anything or has to worry about paying for anything, where everyone is career-driven but never seems to work, and where the city exists only in famous-landmark shorthand.

The patchwork script bears the conspicuous marks of multiple script doctors. The character of Dylan’s nephew, for instance, a hapless kid magician, is a stale leftover from the Saturday Night Live writers’ room. Might this be the work of Timberlake’s pal Andy Samberg (doing his usual shtick in a cameo)? One worn-out comedy cliché follows another, such as the requisite cameo for a celebrity sports figure who shows up to act like a jackass in a few scenes. Here the cringe-worthy honor falls to snowboarder Shaun White.

Patricia Clarkson is a great, game actress. The reward for her graciousness? As Jamie’s boundary-less flirt of a mother, she is forced to say things like “muff blocker” and (if memory, which is thankfully quickly receding, serves) “twat pounding.” Again, this reeks of SNL and Samberg, a retread of the dubious “let’s make Betty White say things about genitals and lesbians” comedy formula. Playing Dylan’s father, Richard Jenkins is also a great, game actor, and for his virtues is equally disrespected by a role that is nothing more than a cheap dramatic device. His character’s Alzheimer’s is merely outlined in bullet points because it only exists to service Timberlake’s third-act turnaround (a great example of how the movie simultaneously, and eerily, enables both Timberlake’s, and Dylan’s, narcissism).

Peering through the smokescreen of all the rewrites and story tampering, one can detect a core idea that was actually worth pursuing, namely that the new job in NYC is just a cover story for the real reason Dylan abruptly uproots his life: to run away from the unsolvable quagmire of his father’s escalating Alzheimer’s. To have better explored this conflict would be to create a fully formed character, equal parts audacity and cowardice, sympathetically flawed. However, Timberlake’s pandering need to always be liked renders such nuance untenable.

Why did Timberlake make the decision to hitch his career to Saturday Night Live? Is it the classic clinical narcissist strategy of finding a derelict small pond to be the big fish in? After all, in his last hosting gig, the show so completely and absurdly kowtowed to his ego as to let him play Mozart! Whatever you think about Timberlake as a performer, one thing is for certain: He is not an actor. His performance in ‘The Social Network’ — as with everything else having to do with that noxious movie — is trite, transparent and overrated. Here in Friends, his limitations are just as obvious. He is all smirk and inflection — or, in the “poignant” scenes, script-coached.

Only one time does Timberlake display anything authentic: When a work colleague (the less said about Woody Harrelson’s embarrassing turn in this role, the better) asks him with sincere bewilderment, “But aren’t you gay?” Here we see a flash of real unease in Timberlake, a vulnerable spot in the ego armor. For a moment — blink and you’ll miss it — we witness genuine panic. It is the only genuine thing in this crass mangle of a movie.

Rating 1 stars

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Ryan Brown is a filmmaker and freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He has an MFA in Media Arts from City College, CUNY. His short films GATE OF HEAVEN and DAUGHTER OF HOPE can be viewed here: With Antonio Tibaldi, he co-wrote the screenplay 'The Oldest Man Alive,' which was selected for the "Emerging Narrative" section of IFP's 2012 Independent Film Week. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Live Flesh), Assayas (Cold Water), Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket), Breillat (Fat Girl), Coen Bros. (Burn After Reading), Demme (Something Wild), Denis (Friday Night), Herzog (The Wild Blue Yonder), Leigh (Another Year), Skolimowski (Four Nights with Anna), Zulawski (She-Shaman)

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