After Ivan Reitman’s unbalanced No Strings Attached, director Will Gluck and screenwriting duo Keith Merryman and David A. Newman take a stab at ridiculing the stereotypical relationship between a man and a woman, and the modern-day conventions of a romantic comedy.
Jamie (Mila Kunis), a New York headhunter, enters into a no-strings-attached relationship with Dylan (Justin Timberlake), her latest client, after they’re both left wounded by previous romantic commitments. However, when real-life starts to complicate their pact, their “purely physical” affinity is tested to the max.
As the puppeteer who keeps the whole thing together, Gluck is surprisingly able to flesh out a comfortably entertaining successor to Easy A. He couples Merryman and Newman’s often sharp dialogue with an unrelenting, quick-fire nature to keep the pace brisk. A well-played film-within-a-film send up (featuring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones) helps it to turn the typical romantic comedy on its head, hilariously dissecting its every sensibility.
But sadly, come the midway point, the film starts to unravel, plot points are left under-explored and the cliches and contrivances that were so carefully avoided in the first half are used as a basis for the conclusion, making it all the more irritating. That said, Gluck’s relentless attitude towards both direction and implementation of ways to refresh the script all the way through, this isn’t too distracting, and laughs are still readily available, if unoriginal.
Thankfully, as leads, Kunis and Timberlake are easy on the eye. They make for a charismatic duo with irresistible, which does wonders to keep the narrative in check throughout. However, at times they feel a little out of their depth – especially when it comes to the more emotionally demanding scenes. Dylan’s interaction with his father, who struggles with Alzheimer’s, is particularly weak.
Stronger support comes in the form of Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s uninhibited mother, Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s aforementioned father and Emma Stone as the catalyst for Dylan’s unexpected move to New York City and, subsequently, into Jamie’s bed. While Clarkson’s performance is characteristically strong, and Stone almost steals the entire film in two minutes, it’s clear that Gluck doesn’t really want to leave Easy A’s comfortable shadow. He goes beyond mere reference, clearly having directed them to play these new roles as Penderghasts. It’s a shame, because they’ve both shown themselves to be hugely versatile.
Friends with Benefits may not succeed in its bid to ridicule and subvert the traditional romantic comedy conventions to the bar set by Easy A, but it’s a lot funnier and far more competent than you’d initially be lead to believe. No Strings Attached may have done it first, but Gluck does it better.