From the annals of movies with plot schematics you can see from a mile away comes this mostly agreeable little fluff, an entertaining enough dollop of midsummer rom-com diversion. At the flimsy heart of the film’s premise is the idea of relationship-phobic young urbanites (Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) who agree to a sex-for-sex’s-sake, multi-night–stand policy, while preserving friendship and dodging the usual complications.
From the get-go, of course, we sense that these artful heart dodgers are bound to violate the terms of the agreement and bump into the point where friendship gets its upgrade. And as the plot gets into that more serious groove, the expected moral and romantic path, the carbonated charm of the film begins to go flat—even as our brainwashed moviegoer expectations feel the relief of formulaic resolution. Funny how that works.
Friends with Benefits is a bi-coastal rom-com romp, with Timberlake as an online designer wizard from Los Angeles lured to a job as art director for GQ by lissome headhunter Kunis, an ostensibly tough New Yorker who betrays her sweeter side by habitually blinking while cussing. Woody Harrelson perks up the periphery with his role as a shamelessly gay sports editor at the mag, spicing up the libidinal atmosphere of the workplace (and the movie), as does the coolly candid Patricia Clarkson. From another angle entirely, Richard Jenkins—who can’t seem to help his scene-stealing ways—gives the film rare moments of genuineness as an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father figure.
As if the filmmakers are even more aware of the hokum at the core than we are, the movie is liberally stocked with self-effacing feints and disclaimers to protect its own presumed integrity. This suspicious “protesteth too much” tendency runs right up through the very tail end of the movie. In a brief post–end-credits scene, our loving couple is in bed, making fun of the post-credits outtakes in a fake lame rom-com movie, putting itself above the genre it, in fact, dives deeply into. It’s all in good, frothy fun, with a touch of deflective hipster irony in the mix.