Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis star in "Friends With Benefits." (David Giesbrecht / Associated…)
If ever there were a movie betting on the idea that sex sells it is "Friends With Benefits," emphasis on the "benefits." The naked truth? Slipping a buff Justin Timberlake and a toned Mila Kunis between the sheets as the naughty but nice romantic pair turns the heat up considerably in this happily never after tale.
And yet, even with all their huffing and puffing, this very salty, often funny affair is never quite as satisfying as it should be.
There was certainly the prospect of pleasure with Will Gluck in the director's chair. The filmmaker showed such an ease in last year's clever comic surprise, the "Scarlet Letter" send-up "Easy A." This time, he appears to be out to update the classic Tracy-Hepburn love-hurts/words-hurt-more trope. Working with a script that credits Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and Gluck, the film mixes flash mobs, text messaging and touch screens with rat-a-tat verbal parries so rapid you really must pay attention and so raw they would make Dr. Drew blush. (The R-rating is definitely earned).
There's some bi-coastal to and fro, but most of the film takes place in New York City. Jamie (Kunis) is a whip smart headhunter trying to lure rising L.A. art director Dylan (Timberlake) to Manhattan for a high-powered gig with GQ magazine. From Jamie and Dylan's first meet-cute moment in the airport when he spies her hopping on top of the baggage carousel to retrieve — well, it's a long story that counts on the comic power of a sign and a short skirt — there is a chemistry that helps buoy the film and a confidence that makes them a good match. And just in case we haven't figured out that they are on equal footing for the duration, she carries his bags.
Even though you know going in that the heart of the matter is whether it really is possible to remain friends while you're, ahem, reaping the benefits, the film takes longer than it should to get to the reaping part. Like the time that's spent at Dylan's new office, which seems to function as an answer to the question: How the heck can we get Woody Harrelson into the film? What they came up with was a bawdy and bold gay GQ sports editor. Harrelson brings his customary quirk and his wild energy, but the running "Are you sure you're not gay?" joke gets wearing.
Bawdy and bold is also the MO for Patricia Clarkson, who plays Lorna, Jamie's libido-driven, free-thinking, so really can't count on her, mom. Even with thin material, Clarkson is a treat to watch. As is Richard Jenkins as Dylan's dementia-afflicted dad, who spends about half his time making brilliant observations about relationships and life, and the other half walking around without his pants.
In addition to parent issues, the writers have Jamie and Dylan dealing with the afterburn of bad breakups, so they are more than content to be just hanging out. But as Freud once said — hang out long enough and a hook-up is bound to happen. As Freud also said — hooking up will mess with your mind. Here, it doesn't at first until it does, and that roller coaster roars through the rest of the film. Whatever the film's pitfalls, it gives us a far better ride than the similarly sexually conflicted "No Strings Attached," which made it to theaters a few months earlier with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman as romantically uncommitted.
What Gluck is quite good at is getting his actors to relax into their roles, which brings a lot of natural life to the party. Both Timberlake, with "Social Network" most recently under his belt, and Kunis, coming off her "Black Swan" star turn, are proving to be very appealing actors, with a lot of talent to boot. Neither of them take themselves too seriously here, an irreverence that keeps their characters likeable even when the film falters.
The look, thanks to director of photography Michael Grady, and the conversations on sex and commitment are open and open-ended. Important issues about the inherent clash between changing mores and traditional values get noodled over a bit. The sex talk is graphic, the sex itself is explicit and energetic, and Jamie and Dylan have a kind of sweetness that makes you want to root for them. Ironically, the problem is that "Friends With Benefits" doesn't go far enough when it gets to the substantial stuff. As Freud famously said — even romantic comedies need to take their sex seriously or there will be no satisfaction. Or maybe that was Jagger.