Since American media sexualizes almost everything except sex, Hollywood romantic comedies about two people making hey-hey without any big plans for any big future rarely come easily or operate from a spirit of carnal delight. The strain of being hip and loose, yet mindful of the conventional, even Puritanical rom-com imperatives, is too much to handle. Leave complicated sexual lives to the French, many Americans mutter, even as they secretly envy the easy Gallic flirtation, not to mention their attention to detail when it comes to a salad.
This year, No Strings Attached presented Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher — a real actress co-starring with a chalk outline of a leading man — as two halves of a sustained casual fling inching toward love and a substantive relationship. Now, showcasing the hyperactively entertaining pair of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, we have the more interesting and energetic Friends With Benefits. We’re running out of titles for romantic comedies based on this premise. We’re Just Blanking may be the last one left.
“No relationship. No emotions. Just sex!” So says the hotshot website art director played by Timberlake, recruited from his California gig for a New York City job as GQ magazine’s design head. (The film takes place in a strange, distant time before the recession, when people flew on airplanes with tickets paid for by prospective employers.) The woman he’s pitching, an executive headhunter played by Kunis, says she’s up for it.
The newbie and his savvy Manhattan sponsor fall into a fast friendship. They fit. He’s “emotionally unavailable,” still smarting over his mother leaving his now-Alzheimer’s-addled father, played by Richard Jenkins with his usual, light-fingered skill; she’s “emotionally damaged” (in a perky, edgy way), the daughter of a boozy free spirit perpetually between relational engagements played by Patricia Clarkson. Why not throw in some intercourse?
Clarkson appeared in the ensemble of director Will Gluck’s previous film, Easy A, which starred Emma Stone and percolated very nicely, from the writing to Gluck’s brisk direction. Friends With Benefits is coarser. (Sensitive souls recovering from the grungier bits in Horrible Bosses might want to wait a week or two.) But it zips along. The script by Gluck, Keith Merryman and David A. Newman has a serrated edge, and neither of the leading roles begs for audience sympathy. Gluck’s feature deals every which way with children of divorce and/or single parents, looking for love. They’re trying to chart a course toward something more authentic than the drippy scenes we’re shown from a fake romantic comedy (wonderfully acted by Jason Segel and Rashida Jones) watched at different points in Friends With Benefits by Jamie and Dylan. I enjoy both Timberlake and Kunis; just this side of manic, they seem right together.
Like so much we see and hear in R-rated rom-coms these days, the movie’s raunch has its pushy side. So does the editing by Tia Nolan, which chops up simple and often very funny bits of dialogue into bits better left alone to breathe visually. These things matter, because they affect how we relate to the people on screen. Still, enough goes right to compensate for what doesn’t quite. You can probably guess the ending. Then again, I doubt Hollywood will ever make a movie about casual sex that turns serious where you can’t guess the ending.