Can men and women be just friends, have sex together, and still keep it friendly? Variations on this earth-shattering theme have been wrought by movies as wildly disparate as “Last Tango in Paris” and “No Strings Attached.” Now we have the latest entry, “Friends With Benefits,” starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as the designated beneficiaries.
The answer to this question, at least in the movie world, is invariably a resounding “no.” Or maybe “duh!” Since it’s a foregone conclusion that the friends-only scenario is irreversibly complicated by sex, the only suspense in “Friends With Benefits” lies in observing how the characters finally realize something we knew all along.
They take an awfully long time to realize it. Timberlake’s Dylan is a hotshot Los Angeles media art director who is lured to a New York job as art director for GQ magazine by Kunis’s Jamie, a vivacious corporate headhunter. Even though Dylan is apparently savvy and worldly enough to have landed the job, he is inexplicably portrayed as something of a bumpkin from the sticks – as if L.A. was a cow town. He needs Jamie to show him the big-city ropes, and soon they agree to a friendship with whoopee on the side.
With messed-up relationships in both of their pasts, Dylan and Jamie are primed for the real deal, and they find it in each other – even though neither will admit it. Their cluelessness is supposed to be cute, but instead they come across as rather stunted. Apparently Dylan has “commitment issues,” while Jamie, who was raised by her superannuated hippie mother (Patricia Clarkson), is a closet flower child looking to put down roots.
It’s tired stuff, and director Will Gluck and his coscreenwriters Keith Merryman and David Newman probably realize it, too. That’s why they periodically work in sequences of a film-within-a-film featuring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones that parodies every studio rom-com cliché. Since “Friends With Benefits” is replete with many of the same clichés, this ploy – diversionary tactic? – is a mite disingenuous.
Timberlake and Kunis try hard to keep this charm machine purring, and they do indeed have traces of chemistry, which is more than you can say for most romantic couples in the movies these days. (Exhibit A: Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in the already forgotten “Larry Crowne.”) But their chemistry is at the service of a science project we’ve all seen before.