Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Friends With Benefits, a good new romantic comedy?

And I'm as confused by it as anyone else. My friend Rachel invited me to an advance screening of "Friends With Benefits," wherein Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are two close friends who settle on... call it what it is, screwing without obligations - or, as Will Smith might say, without "geddin up in each other's bidness." Hijinks ensue.

Does that come with vision and dental?
I expect new romantic comedies to suck hard, lacking chemistry, humor, and/or plausibility, but I chose to put that aside last Wednesday. I didn't try to find out anything about the screening - I actually thought I was in for Natalie Portman's similarly-titled "No Strings Attached." I only learned about 5 minutes before that I was in for "that other movie" with Kunis as the female lead. She's a hottie, and a respectable one for her work on Family Guy and Robot Chicken (still haven't seen "Black Swan," won't watch "70's Show").

I also found out the male lead is Timbo, which I call him because his name reminds me of a boot brand. I've mocked Justin's music and videos before, but I kept an open mind because "D!ck in a Box" actually earned Timberlake a lot of credit in my book.

I figured, "this could be un-painful, it could be ok." Instead, I got a comedy that was so funny, I wouldn't notice or care if it did suck. "FwB" might not be perfect, but it does everything it's supposed to, and does it well. I hope the movie cleans up at the box office when it's released in 10 days, because now I have hope where once I had none.

The movie is very blunt on sex and relationships, handling them in a good, gender-balanced way that'll please men and women alike. The graphic raunchy jokes weren't just dumb "bro's" humor, which I don't usually laugh at much. The lead performances are fine, with the best support work coming from Woody Harrelson as a friendly, open, hyper-gay sports editor. Jenna Elfman has reappeared from I don't know where to pop in as Dylan's sister Anna.

Dylan (Timberlake) is a successful and talented art director, and Jamie (Mila) is a tenacious independent head-hunter; both just had a big breakup, both aren't good at long-lasting relationships. She wants to pull him away from his entrenched, mid-level life in his home (LA) and put him in a fast track New York job with GQ.

They're each attractive, funny, smart go-getters with baggage, and their banter soon turns into a close friendship. The chemistry is easy to see: he's a metrosexual-type, but not a wimp; she's kinda butch considering how pretty she is. One day, after each complains about the complications in getting some physical satisfaction, Timbo suggests they could keep give each other no-pressure lovin. The movie then runs with the problems two complicated 20-somethings would face with all that.

So what's to like in "Friends?" Timberlake plays his role very well, and Kunis is great. Neither of them are perfect or always "right," and both get to lead, develop, and have fun. Extra bonus if you're bisexual: you'll see about as much as both of their naked bodies. There's bare-ass shots of each of them, Timbo's showing off his pecs and biceps, and they show a lot of Mila.

My favorite part is that there a lot of really, really funny jokes. Many modern comedies fizz out, the humor is front-loaded, back-loaded, or just plain firing blanks; big, expensive blanks. This movie is top-to-bottom laughs, and I almost wanna hug the (four!) writers. William "Easy A" Gluck's direction is perfectly fine. I'm glad that he uses elements of 80's and 90's rom-coms, but still manged to keep the movie very new and fresh.

There's a wealth of good dirty and clean jokes in "FwB" - they might be observational or slapstick, quick gags or running laughs. Jamie thinks her boobs are too small, and her f-buddy just casually says, "They're still breasts." Dylan isn't quite as good at oral as he thinks he is, and it's funny to watch her teach him.

One of the best threads involves Dylan's issues with modern planes and Harry Potter worship. Timbo gets to openly mock a stereotypical romantic comedy, including its manipulative "this is how you should feel" soundtrack. Jamie's IPad gag is freaking hysterical, and since she's a super-hip New York girl, she gets to curse like a sailor. It's all funny as it occurs, but some of them will pay off again throughout the film.

Everything's modern here, especially sex. Jamie's not a virgin, but she's not a cheap slag, either; Woody's role is clear about how much he loves cock; Emma Stone babbles about something unusual that Timbo enjoys in bed ("No, not in it...it's like a button!"), and both the leads are willing to treat sex as a normal and necessary part of their lives. It can get sorta filthy without being tasteless, and that's just my style.

So what are the flaws in "Friends with Benefits?" Some moments drag on. It's hard to believe that an airport restaurant would let Timbo do what he does there. Jamie's' mom, played by character actress Patricia Clarkson, tends to "drag" more than "lift." Since Jamie and Dylan people have such sexual chemistry (they can't stop going at it) combined with friendship, you'd think things would come to a head faster. I also just can't believe that a popular online art director has to have "flash mob" explained to him.

And there's that movie staple where everyone's apartments and toys are way too nice! Some secondary characters (not to mention the basic story) might seem like lifts from "When Harry Met Sally," just made a little crazier for effect.

Finally, the problems faced by Dylan's dad (played by Richard Jenkins), may bring down the mood too much or feel awkward in such a light film. The depth of Dylan's dad's problems (Alzheimer's) doesn't kill the mood, but it is a shock, and the most deeply un-happy part of the movie. Imagine explaining to a smiling, charming father that his wife left him years ago, and he's forgotten? On the one hand, the disease does lead the father to talk about "the one that got away.

It's used to explain Dylan's relationship issues, but then the film also tells us that he really worries about what other people think and can't stand being seen with pity. Dylan didn't really strike me as a guy who's that self-conscious before, tho, so use Alzheimer's to highlight it? It's a serious, deadly, heart-breaking disease!

On the other hand, "Friends" gave our male lead an unresolvable problem, which I think might be a confident, mature effort at being realistic while still mining your material for good jokes. Or it might've technically been a mistake. In the end, Dylan's dad's future is up in the air (of course, it's Alzheimer's), but in the true spirit of comedies (see Shakespeare's comedies), it seems like everything will work out. I'm done with the flaws now.

"Friends" does a great job of being sexy, modern but not unromantic, and fairly original. The worst I can say about the movie is that our "special couple" seem like they have potential, but not necessarily some incredibly deep love. Even then, the friendship has great chemistry, and the ending isn't some weird push toward them getting married. The pic also plays my hometown to the hilt, reveling in NYC's quirks and recreating the environment so that it feels like real life.

These days, I actually call these genre pictures "rom-coms," like a businessman. Why? Because the genre doesn't deserve more respect, lately. I'll risk being mocked: I'd take almost anybody to see this film, and I'd be seriously worried if they didn't laugh a whole lot. I'm happy that my friend invited me, I'm happy I saw"the pic," and I'm ok that the theater staff took my fancy cell phone and kept it in a paper bag at a guarded table for 2 hours. On July 22nd, you'll be able to judge for yourself, without the whole cell phone baggie experience.

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