erik lundegaard

Friends with Benefits

Friends with Benefits (2011)


“Friends with Benefits” thinks it’s smarter than it is. It wants to comment upon the problem with romantic comedies while delivering a better romantic comedy. So Jamie (Mila Kunis) yells at a poster of recent rom-com queen Katherine Heigl, calling her a liar for the upbeat endings of her movies, but this movie still gives us an upbeat ending. So Dylan (Justin Timberlake) mocks the obviousness of the genre’s original soundtrack music when the indie-pop soundtrack of this film is equally obvious.

Those other rom-coms are fake, this rom-com is saying. We’re real. But it’s not.

Dylan’s New York apartment alone pissed me off. He’s an LA dude, headhunted by Jamie for GQ magazine to be its art director in New York. When he shows up, there’s a new apartment waiting for him: spacious, impeccably designed, wide glass-door refrigerator, stunning view of the city.

Really? On an art director’s salary?

I happened to be watching this thing with a woman who was art director of Newsweek magazine from 1985 to 1995—back when, you know, magazines meant something—so I asked her. Did she live like that? Did she live close to that?

“You live that way in New York if you’re, like, a gazillionaire,” she said.

The beginning alone pissed me off. Not the beginning-beginning, when we see Dylan talking on his cell, late for a date, and we see Jamie talking on her cell, waiting for her date, and we think they’re talking to each other when really she’s waiting on Andy Samberg in New York, who’s about to break up with her, and he’s late for Emma Stone in LA, who’s about to break up with him. That was a good bit.

No, it’s when he flies to New York, headhunted by her, and she meets him at the airport, takes him to GQ, waits for him outside, takes him out for drinks, takes him to her secret spot in Manhattan—the roof of a building, which is her mountaintop, she says, her place of solitude—and then into the middle of a flash mob in Times Square, singing (for him?) “New York, New York.” After all that, he finally decides to take the job.

In other words, in the middle of a global financial meltdown, where most people are either underemployed or unemployed, we get to watch this little shit get wined and dined to take a high-paying job at a well-known publication in the most dynamic city in the world so he can live in this insane apartment where he gets to fuck Mila Kunis on a regular basis? Occupy Castle Rock Entertainment. Occupy Hollywood.

The early back-and-forth between Jamie and Dylan is awful. She’s from New York, see, so she’s blunt and a power walker, and he’s from LA, see, so he’s polite and waits for streetlights. She’s dynamic, he’s blank. Many things about her say “headhunter.” Not much about him says “art director.” It says “former boy-band member who’s a dynamic performer and can act a little but not well enough to make you believe he’s an art director.”

They work out the deal—the friends-with-benefits deal—on the couch. Twenty years earlier, NBC aired an episode of “Seinfeld,” called “The Deal,” in which Jerry and Elaine worked out a FWB deal on the couch. They came up with a set of rules so they could have “this” (the friendship) as well as “that” (the sex). It was a funny episode. It felt true. And it lasted only a half hour—twenty minutes with commercials. “Friends with Benefits” takes 90 minutes longer to deliver something less funny and less true.

Other characters show up about a half-hour in. Thank God. Jamie’s mom (Patricia Clarkson) is man-hungry and flakey. Dylan’s dad (Richard Jenkins) has early-stages Alzheimer’s and Dylan is often embarrassed by him—which he’ll overcome in a big way in the third act. Dylan has a nephew who does elaborate magic tricks that don’t quite work. Shaun White makes unnecessary cameos. It’s boy meets girl, boy fucks girl, boy befriends girl, boy insults girl, boy gets girl back in the final reel through his own flash mob singing the song he’s sung throughout the movie, “Closing Time” by Semisonic. I like that song (“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”). Unfortunately, it helps Jamie and Dylan get together. Happily-ever-after is implied. It’s the movies, where every new beginning leads to the same Hollywood end.

—December 10, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard