Friends with Benefits

Last year director Will Gluck gave us one of the funniest movies of 2010 with the brilliant and quirky Easy A. Just to prove that he’s not a one-hit wonder, he’s gone and done it again. Friends With Benefits is charming, a little raunchy, and flat-out hilarious. And that’s saying something, since back in January we got the identically-plotted (and pretty good) No Strings Attached with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher.

Here Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis play the couple that wants to enjoy the physical with, well… no strings attached. He’s Dylan, an art director at GQ who’s looking for a break from emotional relationships. She’s Jamie, the headhunter who brought him to New York from LA and who’s always dumped for not bringing enough emotion to the table. Their friendship blossoms over the course of a few weeks, and before too long they’re striking a deal– they’ll stay friends, they’ll have sex, and they’ll never let emotions enter the conversation.

From there, the plotline is as obvious as you’d expect (or even that you saw first-hand back in January), but what sets Friends With Benefits apart is the way that we get to that inevitable ending.

It’s stocked to the rafters with sharp dialogue, hilarious cameos and side jokes, and refreshingly high-caliber performances. Kunis, who really proved her worth in last year’s Black Swan, is stellar here– fiercely independent until she realizes she can be vulnerable. And at no point does anything feel even the slightest bit fake or forced.

Timberlake is following up his great supporting turn in The Social Network with his first starring role, and he hits it out of the park. His comic timing and charisma are both at the top of their game, and his uninhibited performance only adds to the fun (his take on Kriss Kross’ 90s hit “Jump” is a particularly goofy highlight). Most important, though, is the chemistry Kunis and Timberlake share together; it’s as though they’ve been friends since childhood, and we can easily sense how these two people would want to be with each other.

The supporting cast is top-notch, too. Patricia Clarkson, essentially reprising her role as the kooky mom from Easy A, is priceless. And Richard Jenkins and Jenna Elfman bring just enough gravitas to their roles as Dylan’s sister and dad to nicely even out the hilarity.

It’s Gluck, though, who really makes a name for himself with Friends With Benefits. He deftly keeps everything humming right along, never going too far in one direction. The revelation that Jenkins’ character is coping with Alzheimer’s could have turned things into a maudlin mess, but Gluck wisely reins things in just enough.

From riffs on Easy A to Heroes to a delightful running gag about the Miracle on the Hudson, Friends with Benefits fires on all cylinders, successfully avoiding the label of ‘the other all-sex-no-love’ movie and becoming the best romantic comedy of the year, all by itself.

4.5/5 stars