Wednesday, 10 August 2011

“What I lack in experience I make up for in clichés”

Friends with Benefits: directed by Will Gluck; written by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and Will Gluck
After seeing Friends with Benefits I came across some interviews that director/writer Will Gluck gave in relation to the film and my attention was immediately caught when I saw him compare it to a Tracy/Hepburn scenario. More arresting, though, was his concept of the characters’ mindfulness. A significant scene in the film sees the two, until then, sex starved protagonists Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) watching a romantic couple on screen played to anachronistic perfection by Jason Segel and the lovely Rashida Jones. Because these characters are so wise they’re able to point out the silliness of the romantic genre and the ludicrousness that has all those platitudes culminate in a happy ever after ending. The scene is delivered with a level of snark I accept, because even if I do feel badly for the genre romantic comedies tend to be embellished as of late with little to redeem them. In theory, it seems Gluck flirts with the idea of creating a response to decade and more of tired clichés – but, not quite...
A week after the fact, the occasional insularity of the film’s world gives me pause. Dylan is a mere denizen in New York, so that would explain his apparent isolation, but it’s odd that Jamie (portrayed as the poster-girl for all things New York) would have not a single friend in the city other than a man she’s met mere weeks before. The conceit of the film rests on the concept that the two, islands in the proverbial stream, are both lonely and horny and deciding that sex should be as friendly and casual as a game tennis decide to begin a game – a sports’ metaphor that’s awfully trite*. I think I’m getting lost in mixed metaphors. Naturally, the situation will go awry when one – or god forbid, both – of them realises that the situation isn’t as foolproof as it seems. Even tennis has its causalities.

More than a number of persons have credited the “success” of the film to the charisma of the two leads and Timberlake and Kunis definitely do have searing chemistry. For all his recent ubiquity, I like Justin Timberlake (although that’s more than possibly just residual appreciation from his music career) and though I’ve not seen Kunis in enough for her to move me I’m still interested in when she steps up the base line to serve (another sports’ metaphor, whoa). Still, fairly good performances hardly make fine cinema and though nothing about the film screams abysmal, the film around them doesn’t suggest priority. Patricia Clarkson shows up, as is her wont, to inject even more enthusiasm to the situation as Jamie’s kooky and somewhat loose mother. There’s a scene in the film which seems intended to mirror a similar one in Gluck’s last feature Easy A, and it doesn’t roll over the net unimpeded (ahem). It’s because Friends with Benefits spends a curiously short amount of time examining the purported issues of the characters. The film opens with respective hook-ups of Jamie and Dylan telling them that they’re emotionally undeveloped and damaged, and it’s not until well into the second half that they make up on any indication these emotional issues. Otherwise, Timberlake and Kunis prance around like any normal, good-looking young adult.
The clichéd romantic comedy within a romantic comedy which Segel and Jones star in plays on a loop at occasional parts of the film and Gluck’s intent is as subtle as a hammer to the head. The insertion is too saccharine to be condescending; it borders more on being annoyingly expedient. This, he seems to say, is the clichéd way – we’re going to be more self-aware. But, imprudently Gluck seems to think that acknowledging that a mountain is huge is as good as moving it. So, he mires his film down with a slew of witty comments on the state of affairs in the genre while resorting to the same ones to keep the film afloat, which results in an experience where the occasional pleasures are subverted by a pervading sense of confusion. I think I’d have appreciated Friends with Benefits more if it didn’t try to land its serve with a backhanded (gah, that metaphor again). It delivers in a cutesy ways of the genre, but by destroying the naive geniality of the genre it leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. And, for all their clichés – the last thing you want is a romantic comedy which leaves you feeling uncomfortable. Gluck shows moments of perception, but they aren’t well imbued. Gluck takes the dive, but he doesn’t stick his landing.

(*I’m done with the sports’ metaphors, I promise. See how gauche that was, with the constant use of sports’ metaphors even as I said that they’re awkward? That’s sort of how Friends with Benefits comes off.)



Mike Lippert said...

For as much as this movie isn't as godd as Easy A, I'm glad to see Gluck is at least making respectible, if forgettable mainstream movies as opposed to his truely unbearable debut Fired Up.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Well, you hit that one out of the park.

Brandon B. said...

I actually liked the movie as a whole, better than Easy A (which badly fell apart in the second half). FWB is a movie that feels longer than it is, but I didn't care because of how likeable it is. It's also more consistently effective. It had an emotional core that felt real and made me think about the scenario of young people and the way sex is incorporated in their lives today. And Mila -- vibrant and sexier than ever -- really knocks it outta the pahk! More appealing than Emma Stone sometimes...thats impressive.

Dan O. said...

Nice Review! Friends With Benefits is a dumb, by-the-numbers romantic comedy. Yet I kept finding small things to enjoy in it, mainly because of the two hard-to-hate leads.

Simon said...

If it was just Justin Timberlake/Mila Kunis pillow talk, I could watch it all day. But, alas, these things must go about their business.

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Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

mike i had a particularly tough time grading this because there ARE some good moments. gluck has a knack for good moments, so it's not as if it's not salvageable.

yojimbo *pumps fists*

brandon oh, mila is lovely no doubt and the chemistry between the two is good, but it's not enough for me.

dan there ARE some great things to enjoy despite...

simon "If it was just Justin Timberlake/Mila Kunis pillow talk, I could watch it all day. " and even though there'd be no patricia, i could be down with that.