DVD Release Date: December 2, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: July 22, 2011
Rating: R (for sexual content and language)
Genre: Comedy
Run Time: 109 min.
Director: Will Gluck
Actors: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Richard Jenkins, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Andy Samberg, Shaun White, Bryan Greenburg, Nolan Gould

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review contains discussion of mature subject matter. Parents please be advised before allowing children to read.

The lead characters in Friends with Benefits, the new sex-without-consequences comedy starring Mila Kunis (Black Swan) and Justin Timberlake (Bad Teacher), features lead characters who don’t need to be in relationship. They need to be in counseling.

Dylan (Timberlake) is a website art director who has been recruited by headhunter Jamie (Kunis) to take a job with GQ magazine. The new gig necessitates a move from L.A. to New York City. Dylan’s afraid he might make the move only to fail spectacularly (or “s-it the bed,” a metaphor they state repeatedly, between discussions of their sex lives and checkered pasts), while she’s confident he has what it takes to succeed in the new role. Plus, she gets a nice fat fee for recruiting him—and an even nicer bonus as long as he doesn’t leave the position within a year.

So Jamie sells Dylan on New York by immersing him in the midst of a “flash mob”—something with which the Web-savvy designer is largely unfamiliar, even though flash mobs are frequently featured in online clips that go viral. The moment, meant to be magical, feels phony—one of several failed jokes and pop-culture references early in the film, when the story needs to build a head of steam. More polished performers—those who have established screen personas—could have elevated the dialogue, but Timberlake and Kunis, both of whom show great promise, simply aren’t seasoned enough to compensate for the bumpy script. Their early conversations should come across as fun repartee, but instead feel stilted and bland. We know the two characters should be falling for each other, but the movie doesn’t do a good job of carrying us along.

No sooner have Dylan and Jamie made fun of New York stereotypes as seen in the sitcom Seinfeld than they’re proposing a feature-length reenactment of one of that sitcom’s classic episodes: Why can’t two friends (very new friends, in the case of Dylan and Jamie) have sex without having a relationship? Why can’t they derive physical pleasure from one another but leave out all of the obligations and emotional baggage that come with physical intimacy in the context of a committed relationship?

Seinfeld sorted out this mess in just over 20 minutes. Friends with Benefits runs 109 minutes with characters that are much less familiar to us than were Jerry and Elaine. After the buildup to the couple’s first sexual encounter—a very explicit scene dominated by an extended discussion of, and performance of, oral sex by each partner—the film has to figure out what to do with the remainder of its running time.

There will be a mutual decision by the two leads to stop sleeping with each other and to pursue other people. Then they’ll get back together. Dylan will seek advice from his sister (Jenna Elfman) and Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (Richard Jenkins, Hall Pass), while fending off invitations to carouse with a gay co-worker (Woody Harrelson, The Messenger). Jamie will take in her flaky mother (Patricia Clarkson, Shutter Island), on whom she blames most of her relationship problems, and will travel with Dylan to meet his family, leading to complications that are easily foreseen. During a rare moment of lucidity, Dylan’s dad will provide a moral lesson for his son (it’s a doozy) that pushes the film’s events toward a resolution and reconciliation.

The ending can’t come soon enough. Though the most explicit content comes during the movie’s first third, the framework for the film’s central relationship never gets much beyond the physical. Dylan and Jamie know they have issues but don’t do anything to seriously address their stunted emotions and past traumas. That makes it difficult to feel happy that they’ve “found” each other. No romance will undo the damage these characters have experienced. But the film wants audiences to have fun, so it uses emotional trauma only as a cheap plot device for some emotional resonance, without ever dealing with the characters’ deeper spiritual and psychological needs. Had it gone in that direction, Friends with Benefits might have provided a context to better understand its characters’ actions. As it is, the film is happy to keep audiences from thinking too much along the road toward a Hollywood happy ending.

This morally troubling film, in case the title didn’t give that away, falls short even on the base level on which it tries to work. The leads are likable, but the screenplay does not serve them well. The script, by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and director Will Gluck (Easy A), tries to root the characters’ need for affection in parental-abandonment issues that might have made for an interesting character study. But those story elements feel perfunctory and come well into the film’s running time, long after the promise of seeing two attractive young stars have sex on screen has been fulfilled—repeatedly.

The sex is what the filmmakers wanted audiences to respond to, and that’s where the movie concentrates most of its energy. Viewers looking for that sort of thing won’t be entirely unhappy with the film. Those who are hoping for something more complex and interesting can find it in just about any other current offering at the cinema.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple uses of the “f”-word; all sorts of foul language and discussion of sexual practices; crude terms to refer to male and female anatomy; brief reference to “porn”; a joke about Puerto Ricans; jokes about homosexuality; reference to “sexting”; “hand job”; “MILF”; “pound town.”
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Characters drink several times alone, together, in social situations; party scenes include images of people passed out; Jamie’s mother wistfully remembers the 1970s as a time of “a little grass, a little glue”; a young magician offers to light a cigarette.
  • Sex/Nudity: Extensive sex scenes, including oral sex, depicted under sheets and covers for the most part; bare back sides are shown multiple times, and bare breasts are partially seen from the side but also in full from the front in at least one instance; kissing; a chauffeur watches Jamie change clothes in the back of a car; Jamie says she took Shaun White’s virginity; both characters acknowledge regrettable one-night stands; Jamie’s mother walks in on her and Dylan having sex; a gay character talks about picking up men and invites Dylan to party with him several times; a man removes his pants and moons his co-workers; on a TV screen, we see four people in bed together; Dylan’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s, walks in public without pants on; nude models in a photo shoot; a pose that a photographer refers to as a “Christ figure.”
  • Violence/Crime: None.
  • Religion: Jamie and Dylan place their hands on a Bible app on a computer.

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.