Ashton and Natalie may have beaten them to the “just sex” punch line with "No Strings Attached," but Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis do it better — and more enjoyably — in "Friends With Benefits."
A crisply contemporary, notably grown-up romantic comedy directed and co-written by "Easy A" director Will Gluck, the bi-coastal picture goes a long way in bringing sexy back to a soggy genre, benefiting greatly from the presence of its likable leads.
Not only do they handle the tart banter with an assured, playful give-and-take, but — surprise, surprise — they also manage to exhibit an extremely rare big screen quality: There’s actually a palpable chemistry between them.
Even though the postmodern vehicle ultimately proves guilty of adhering too closely to those very same tired rom-com conventions at which it satirically pokes fun, its fresh-faced, attractive leads inject it with a winning vitality.
That vibe should help audiences brush aside the initial sensation of deja-vu and make this Screen Gems release an attractive proposition in its own right.
Immediately establishing a brisk pace suited to a film set in both New York and Los Angeles, director Gluck dispenses with any creaky plot mechanics that will slow down the business at hand — bringing together hot-shot L.A.-based media art director Dylan (Timberlake) and Manhattan-based corporate headhunter Jamie (Kunis).
Not only does adventurous Jamie manage to convince him to relocate to the East Coast for a dream gig calling the shots at GQ Magazine, they find themselves jumping into each others arms, among other various body parts, even though both are still smarting from recently terminated relationships.
Despite Jamie and Dylan’s mutual declaration to maintain a strictly physical relationship, darned if those pesky emotions don’t manage to creep their way into those best-laid plans.
Working from Keith Merryman and David Newman’s sharply observed, casually au courant script, to whch he contributed, Gluck clearly had vintage Hepburn-Tracy sophisticated comedy in the back of his head while working out the style and tempo of the production.
He also mines healthy — and well-deserved — laughs from making fun of the current state of studio romantic comedies with a mock film-within-the-film featuring an unbilled Jason Segel and Rashida Jones along with virtually every rom-com cliché under the sun.
But he also succumbs to many of those very same trappings as the film progresses, including the staging of not one but two choreographed flash mob sequences—a YouTube phenom that already felt past its prime when Howie Mandel hosted a hidden-camera special earlier this year.
The hypocritical element aside, Gluck not only draws terrific performances from Kunis and Timberlake (fresh from their career-best turns in Black Swan andThe Social Network, respectively), but from a crack supporting cast.
Woody Harrelson handily steals his handful of scenes as Timberlake’s office colleague — a gung-ho, gay man’s man — while the ever-reliable Patricia Clarkson shines as Kunis’ hazy-around-the-edges, aging ‘70s groupie of a mom. Jenna Elfman puts in an effective turn as Timberlake’s world-weary big sister.