Sex plays an important role in Friends with Benefits -- but not as important as you'd expect, given the film's title and its easy-to-advertise premise of two attractive young people having no-strings-attached hanky-panky. At its core, it's just a regular ol' romantic comedy, except that it's about a guy and girl who are cynical about love because they've been raised on a steady diet of dumb romantic comedies.
Since the characters in Friends with Benefits openly ridicule the rom-com genre (as well they should), the burden is on Friends with Benefits to avoid being the kind of movie those characters would make fun of. And it succeeds, thanks to comedic chemistry between the two leads and nimble direction by Will Gluck, who also did enough rewrites on Keith Merryman and David A. Newman's screenplay to get co-credit. (I'm telling you, Gluck is one to watch. His Fired Up! and Easy A were both much smarter and funnier than they ought to have been, and the short-lived sitcom he created, The Loop, was borderline genius.)
Mila Kunis plays Jamie, a corporate headhunter described by her ex-boyfriend as "emotionally damaged." Justin Timberlake is Dylan, described by his ex-girlfriend as "emotionally unavailable." Miss Damaged and Mr. Unavailable meet when Jamie recruits Dylan for a top position at GQ Magazine, and this professional interaction -- and the fact that Dylan doesn't know anyone else in New York -- leads to an easy friendship.
When they do finally sleep together, it's only after the movie has established a friendship between them that feels remarkably authentic. Their jokey rapport resembles that of the 30-year-olds in your own life, with the fresh aroma of natural, unscripted camaraderie. Do you have any Generation-Y-age friends who are funny? Then they probably converse the way Dylan and Jamie do.
This is crucial to the film, which would be a disaster otherwise. We believe Dylan and Jamie are friends, and we believe that neither wants a romantic relationship with the other (or with anyone), and we believe that they believe they can really have casual sex without strings becoming attached. What sounded like a cheap and shallow premise on paper is actually a fleshed-out and convincing story.
Timberlake and Kunis are marvelous together, both absurdly good-looking and charming, yet somehow also down-to-earth and accessible. The movie not only makes you feel like you're hanging out with a couple of fun friends for two hours, it also makes you feel like you could actually be friends with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, which of course you cannot.
They are aided immeasurably by three supporting performances. Patricia Clarkson is a whirlwind of comedy as Jamie's flaky and free-spirited sexpot mother. Woody Harrelson is Dylan's enthusiastically lascivious gay co-worker who defies most of the "gay best friend" rom-com stereotypes. And the indispensable Richard Jenkins manages to bring real heart to a treacherous role: Dylan's father, his role model, now suffering from Alzheimer's.
Certain things are required in a movie like this, even one that's savvy enough to know that it's a movie like this. That means Dylan and Jamie's friendship must be imperiled by their intimacy, that they must have a fight, that one must rush to reconcile with the other in a public place. You can't avoid every cliche, and maybe you don't need to. Most romantic comedies are based on the premise of keeping two people who are obviously in love from realizing they're in love. In this case, we can buy Dylan and Jamie's reluctance to face facts, and we get a lot of laughs in the process of seeing them figure it out.