Sunday, July 24, 2011

Friends With Benefits

Friends with Benefits Poster - 2011 Movie Promo Flyer 11 X 17 - Justin Timberlake Mila Kunis M

Friends With Benefits is the new romantic comedy starring Justin Timberlake as Dylan, an emotionally challenged Californian that is brought to New York by headhunting recruiter Jamie (Mila Kunis) for an interview at GQ magazine.  Dylan gets the job and makes the transition to life in the Big Apple.  Not knowing anyone the two become close friends, a relationship that spins into a friends with benefits sexual relationship.

This film was not terrible, however it was overly predictable and not as funny as I would have liked it to be.  Before I continue I feel I must say that I didn’t expect many people to be at the theater for this one.  Perhaps it was due to the fourth consecutive day of ninety-degree humidity but nevertheless the theater was packed on a Saturday mid-afternoon.  While I didn’t experience any laugh-out-loud moments personally many of those who shared the viewing with me did, as there were frequent periods of loud continuous laughter.

I looked around during these moments and had to contemplate, what’s wrong with me, why am I not finding these scenes overtly funny?  Sure, I could understand why some people would find the humor in some of the exchanges, in some of the dialog, but none of which could I ever see myself bellowing in uncontrollable laughter like those who surround me in the darkness. So, where lays the disconnection, between my sense of humor, which I happen to think is fairly good, and that of my movie-going companions? 

I paid particular attention to those exiting the cinema and found that most were in their early to mid twenties, primarily in couples.  There were a few much older than myself, of which I’m in my mid-thirties.  I’d guesstimate that approximately 75% of the theater population were couples, the others, to which I fall into statistically, were by themselves. While I had no way to properly investigate, because of theater positioning, line of sight and the darkness, I would say the brief visual polling I did, combined with the viewing of the film itself, I feel safe in saying that this film was made for the younger, twentyish crowd, to which it appears, at least with my showing, that the filmmakers succeeded in their marketing efforts.

The fact so many seemed to really enjoy this film will not, nor does not skew or filter my take on FWB.  The film is predictable in its very essence.  Girl loses boy, boy loses girl, boy and girl meet, boy and girl become friends then become more than friends, problem takes place, boy loses girl, girl loses boy, boy has a moment of clarity and realizes all is lost, which is followed by a dramatic cinematic moment of apology, girl forgives boy, all is well in romcom land.

Okay, that may sound trite, but it’s fairly accurate.  What’s not included is what makes the film work. 

The film constantly takes jabs and digs at so many things that it takes some time to think through and properly digest.  Is this film trying to be serious, or is it really but a spoof of itself?  I can’t say for sure, but in any case this vague betrayal of form worked very well.  Some examples:

1.   John Mayer is our generations Sheryl Crow, spoken by Emma Stone in her brief cameo.
2.   Jamie pulls out an Ipad.  Using her Bible app, she has Dylan swear to her that he only wants her for sex, that emotions will not be involved whatsoever.  But the joke here is how the Ipad’s positioning is ultra-difficult to coordinate with the two, taking a jab at Apple but also a clever tool that foreshadows much of what has yet to come

3.   There’s this movie within the movie.  Jason Segal plays a guy named flapjack, which has it’s own urban connotation itself, who is in love with Rashida Jones.  This movie within a movie is ultra sappy and purposefully brutal in terms of acting and setting.  It appears a few times throughout the film and almost becomes the antithesis of what FWB is about, yet perhaps the romantic sloppiness in this Segel short is really what the characters in FWB are striving for in their own relationships, providing an interesting idea to dwell upon.   We see a very nice use of props (inner movie itself) where a completely fake Grand Central Station, which then plays into FWB’s callback finale scene.

4.   Cliché’s are everywhere in this film.  From the girl who wants a fairy tale romance and movie-like experience to the repetition of genre clichés.  It’s as if the writers purposely implanted as many clichés as they could find.  The best illustration of this was when Dylan has his first staff meeting at GQ, where he tells everyone that his door is always open, and then proceeds to bring the door, already removed from its hinges, out into the main floor.  The way the clichés were strewn throughout this film actually made them fresh again and enjoyable to watch.

There are many other ribs on dating, relationships, entertainment, food, you name it and the writers took their shots, which make the film worthwhile viewing.  I’d love to go over a bunch more here, but seeing how these cultural jabs are what I find most interesting about FWB, I’ll refrain and let you experience them for yourself.

I thought the acting was decent, but I don’t think it was intended to be anything more than this.  Kunis hits her roll perfectly, as does her mother, played by Patricia Clarkson.  Timberlake seems to have the shy and reserved, almost underwhelming character type down pat, as it’s a role we’ve seen him play in various films now.  He does a good job with it once again.  Woody Harrelson does a pretty funny job as a gay sports writer and Jenna Elfman and Richard Jenkins perform nicely as Dylan’s father and sister. 

The overall premise of the film is unethical in some circles.  Yet they kind of make a point of doing this bit of off-colored humor throughout the entire film, from graphic homosexual banter to quick inappropriate web-page snippets to some tactless airplane humor and more.  But what I didn’t like was the direct humor that used an Alzheimer patient’s suffering as a source for joke material.  There really isn’t anything funny about it, and it wasn’t until the end of the film, where the father makes a joke himself, than follows up by saying what else does he have, that the distastefulness is seen in perspective, alleviating the unsettling feeling I had.  That said it just wasn’t really needed, they could have made him an overworked businessman and come to the same conclusion, that life is short, carpe diem and so forth. 

There’s one other minor thing I didn’t really care for.  I’ve mentioned props a few times in this review, as I have in some of my other ones.  I’m a big proponent in the theory that when a prop is initialized or introduced early in a film, you, as the writer, must pay it off later, otherwise there’s no point of using the prop at all. 

The writers paid off almost all of the props they used, which assists the storytelling experience: the Ipad and the movie within a movie are two that I’d mentioned previously, yet there are many others, from an Kinect gaming control to an artist’s painting, from a speedboat to a magician’s sawing box.  But for whatever reason the writers chose to leave Dylan’s socks unpaid, a prop that ties into his emotional insecurity.  Early on he tells Jamie that he keeps his socks on during intimacy, this is followed up with a scene in where he’s in the shower, still wearing then.   Near film’s end, he takes his pants, yet another prop, off after his father already had taken his off at the airport diner.  As he sits down to eat, his socks are still on, which would have been a perfect moment for them to come off.  Perhaps I missed something, but if not, that certainly was a missed opportunity in my opinion.   

As I’ve mentioned I’m not in love with this film.  I don’t dislike it, but I’m closer to dislike than I am to love.  I enjoyed many parts of the movie, but as I’ve stated the comedy didn’t make me break out in laughter nor did the romance evoke emotional release, often feeling boring and stale.  However the off type and subtle comedic nuance, featuring jabs and passing attacks make the film worth seeing, and if you like this sort of thing I’d strongly recommend Friends With Benefits to you.  

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