In the infectiously smart-mouthed but uneven romantic comedy Friends With Benefits, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis talk and talk and talk — truly, madly, glibly. They talk when they meet cute at a New York airport (he’s a hot Internet property who’s just arrived from L.A. to be interviewed for the position of art director at GQ magazine; she’s the corporate headhunter who recruited him). They talk that night when she shows him around the city — at a swank outdoor bar, on a romantic rooftop, in the touristy swarms of Times Square, where they wind up smack in the middle of a flash mob that’s performing ”New York, New York.” (Even that doesn’t stop them from talking.) They talk, as well, when they fall into bed a few days later, in a sex scene that?s an offhand riot of blunt anatomical specificity. And they talk — God, do they talk! — when they try to pin down the status of their relationship.
Let’s see: They get along famously. They have tons of stuff in common. They’re both gorgeous. They have amazing sex. (As Bill Maher quipped after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s relationship went public: ”Why shouldn’t the two most beautiful people in the world f— each other?”) And beyond all that, they have an arrangement. Both have been burned, once too often, by bum relationships, so they’ll protect themselves from that ever happening again by agreeing to merely be good friends who sleep with each other. They can leave all that messy love stuff out! Hell, who’s got the time for it when you spend all your time talking?
Directed by Will Gluck (Easy A) from a script he co-wrote with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, Friends With Benefits, at least for a while, may be the hookup-generation equivalent of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day gabfest — an outrageously synthetic confection that pleases and entertains in its very froth. From the fast and furious opening sequence, which crosscuts between Timberlake’s Dylan and Kunis’ Jamie each getting dumped, the dialogue has an insanely pop-culture-fixated shoot-from-the-brain chattiness. It’s peppered with kitschy-pithy observations about Captain Sullenberger, John Mayer (”The Sheryl Crow of our generation!”), George Clooney, and, yes, cheesy-bad Hollywood romantic comedies. Here, as in Easy A and his first film, the cheerleader farce Fired Up!, Gluck favors dialogue that’s over-the-top, breathless, and a bit airless. He knows how to create grabby characters, like Woody Harrelson as a proudly gay GQ sports editor who speaks in such matter-of-fact raunch that he seems loopy and weirdly sane at the same moment. (The characterization itself, meanwhile, dances between enlightened and smugly stereotypical.) In an age of connect-the-dots screenwriting, the sheer verbosity of Friends With Benefits is a form of generosity, and Gluck has the ideal cast to spew it out.
Timberlake, with the face of a naughty Roman god, has a uniquely charming rhythm: He’s laid-back and in overdrive at the same time. As he proved in his brilliant small performance in The Social Network, he knows how to play young men who put their hustle right on the surface, but what makes him a crackerjack actor is that he always shows you what’s behind the words. His darting eyes suss out what’s going on in any situation, and he uses that quality to give every scene a dramatic snap. He’s a fox in every sense. (He also does a fantastic white-boy mime to Kriss Kross’ ”Jump.”) Mila Kunis, with big doe eyes and a mane of slovenly-erotic hair, is like Brigitte Bardot gone Sex and the City, and her wiseacre ?tude, delivered with a slightly flat affect, is poised and cynical and amused.
I enjoyed Friends With Benefits up to a point, but not as much as I wanted to, because there’s a weirdly fluffy flaw at the movie’s core. It’s clear, from the outset, that Dylan and Jamie are meant for each other. Every romantic comedy, however, needs a conflict, something that gets in the way of two people realizing that they’re in love. In this case, we keep getting told that Dylan is ”emotionally unavailable” and that Jamie is ”emotionally damaged.” But what we see are two characters who are so charismatic, great-looking, and sharp in every way that when they meet the people they were meant for (i.e., each other), they can afford to be casual about it because they more or less take their own appeal for granted. They’re bedroom-romp aristocrats. And that, really, is all that’s standing in their way. I’m not exactly sure this is a situation that a lot of people are going to identify with. More to the point, it gives the movie a faulty design. Dylan and Jamie sleep together and get along famously. Where’s the dramatic motor?
Okay, there are a few Complications. Jamie starts dating an earnest physician, a subplot that provides Dylan with a temporary ”rival,” although it really goes nowhere. And each of the characters is given one problematic parent. Patricia Clarkson, tossing off hilariously discombobulated non sequiturs, plays Jamie’s trapped-in-the-’70s flake of a mother, and Richard Jenkins plays Dylan’s dad, who’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; he knows what’s happening to him, which just adds to the tragedy. When Dylan takes Jamie along to visit his family, the sequence is meant to provide the movie with the requisite touch of gravitas. Instead, though, it sags. It grows earnest and banal, as we’re now supposed to look at Dylan and feel his pain. Sorry, but the movie was more fun when it looked like he didn’t have any. B-