Also the sex. The screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, which Friends with Benefits calls to mind, were sexy but sex-free. The modern romantic comedy, like the modern relationship, is not (sex-free, that is; bad rom/coms are often quite unsexy). Friends with Benefits, as the title implies, is about a couple of friends who are not a couple. They merely couple occasionally (maybe more than occasionally) as a convenience because they’re friends, and they’ve both recently been dumped – and why should the body suffer just because the heart is unattached?
That goes especially if the bodies are as attractive as Jamie (Mila Kunis) and Dylan (Justin Timberlake). She’s a corporate headhunter; he’s a website art director. They meet when she recruits him for GQ. They have one of those obligatory rom/com meet-cutes when she climbs atop an airport baggage carousel just as he shows up at the airport. He’s from Los Angeles, reluctant to move to the Big Apple, so she shows him the “real New York” to entice him to stay. The “real New York” includes a dancing flash mob in Times Square, which would probably be a surprise to most real New Yorkers, but the gambit works. Dylan takes the job; he and Jamie become besties; and eventually, Nature calls. They decide that a little casual sex wouldn’t be such a bad thing for their friendship.
You know the rest – or at least you should, if you’re even vaguely familiar with how things go in romantic comedies. Director Will Gluck (who also co-wrote the movie with a gaggle of screenwriters) creates a movie full of moving parts in which nothing is wasted, whether it’s a flash mob, or a phony movie-within-a-movie, or a friend with a boat, or a funny cameo by Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White, or a guy who doesn’t like pants.
The pantsless guy would be Dylan’s Dad (Richard Jenkins), who has Alzheimer’s, but who also dispenses sage romantic advice when it’s most needed. Also on hand to give Dylan advice is Tommy (Woody Harrelson), the magazine’s randy, goofy, gay sports editor (with a boat). Tommy, in modern rom/com tradition, is the gay talk-to – although, to turn the tradition on its head, he’s the talk-to for the guy this time, instead of the girl. Jamie has her hippie Mom Lorna (Patricia Clarkson) to talk to, but few other visible friends.
Jamie loves romantic comedies – the more clichéd the better. She is, according to the guy who most recently dumped her (Andy Samberg), emotionally damaged, while Dylan, according to the gal who recently dumped him (Emma Stone), is emotionally unavailable.
The movie requires no psychoanalyzing. It’s zingy, energetic, fast and funny. Dylan and Jamie talk and talk and talk, and they talk fast, in screwball-comedy fashion. They chatter about the complications of modern love, they trash their exes and they trash-talk romantic comedy clichés even as they enact those same clichés. They can get away with it because they know that they’re doing it (although the movie cleverly sets up situations in which they don’t know that they’re doing it).
This is the movie’s primary defense against the charge that it exploits the very conventions that it mocks: It pleads guilty to misappropriation of those conventions instead, as it cheekily flips them over. The movie gets away with it because the writing is snappy and lively, the story is breezy and fast-paced and because Friends with Benefits depends, like any good rom/com, on the appeal of its performers, which is considerable. Kunis and Timberlake are cute; they do smart-and-edgy well; and they’re equally good company when they’re just friends enjoying some head-over-heels maneuvers and when they’re falling head-over-heels in love.
Syd’s pick: Check out Capra’s classic romantic comedy It Happened One Night
One of the movies referenced in Friends with Benefits is Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, a 1934 screwball classic starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as an unlikely pair who meet, suffer numerous misadventures (including eating carrots!) and fall in love. Colbert plays an heiress who runs from an arranged marriage; Gable is a newspaper reporter on the outs with his editor. They end up together, on the road and penniless.
It Happened One Night has the right ingredients in the right combination for a romantic comedy: a funny script with bright, snappy dialogue; fast-talking, appealing performances by Gable and Colbert; and funny situations, misunderstandings, contretemps and calamities on the bumpy, unpaved road to true love. This one is rightfully a classic of the genre – a quintessential romantic comedy.
@ Syd M