It’s been the Holy Grail for men since forever — the idea of finding a woman who wants lots of sex but doesn’t need to be wrapped in the smother love of a “relationship.” The people who study these things now say that there may actually be women out there who agree with the guys. Whether that qualifies as liberation or progress can be debated, but the hot new stat of the moment is that fully sixty percent of college students have had a regular FWB (“Friend with Benefits”). There’s a demo Hollywood can believe in. So it’s no wonder that two films — Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached — are out in the same year suggesting that guilt-free sex is the stuff of rom-com fun.
Both films feature leads who are impossibly attractive enough to convince even Focus on the Family that a little side-nooky isn’t such a bad idea. In Benefits, Jamie (Mila Kunis) is an assertive New York recruiter who needs to convince art director Dylan (Justin Timberlake) to leave Los Angeles behind and take a higher profile job at GQ. In Strings, Natalie Portman’s Emma is a Los Angeles medical resident who re-meets a summer camp almost-fling in Ashton Kutcher’s Adam, an aspiring TV writer.
The spine of these two films is so close thematically that the title of one is practically used as the key art catch-phrase of the other. (The poster for the first release of No Strings Attached says “Friendship has its benefits.”) It’s a wonder they didn’t both get Nike to sponsor them, the operative sentiment being, “Just do it.”
Friends with Benefits debates two enduring questions of our time. The first is whether sex without commitment is workable, and we already know that to make this premise fly, the odds are stacked heavily toward no. The second age-old debate — the relative merits of New York versus Los Angeles — is more of a fair fight and gives the film much of its structure. Some of its best moments center around landmark set-pieces in both cities — Grand Central Station and the Hollywood sign.
Out of the gate, with engaging cameos from Emma Stone and Andy Samberg, we learn that both Jamie and Dylan have been recently dumped — he for being emotionally unavailable, she for being emotionally fragile. It’s a perfect time for change when recruiter Jamie courts art director Dylan for a step up the ladder in New York. The call of the big city, like Jamie herself, proves irresistible, and Dylan moves into the most stylish New York apartment ever. Their convincing chemistry makes a physical relationship inevitable, but both agree to keep their damaged emotions off-limits.
If only life were so simple we wouldn’t have movies. Pesky feelings sneak in, as we come to understand the characters’ vulnerabilities. Jamie was raised without a dad and with a mom (Patricia Clarkson) who’s had so many lovers, her running joke is about not being able to remember exactly who fathered Jamie. Dylan has a dad he admires (Richard Jenkins, terrific as always), but now he’s gradually losing the old man to Alzheimer’s. In creating such real problems, screenwriters Keith Merryman and David Newman, along with writer/director/producer Will Gluck (Easy A) opted to make the characters relatable at the expense of some extra laughs. The choice pays off, enhancing their dance of intimacy until Jamie risks a trip to Los Angeles to meet Dylan’s family and ends up fleeing back to New York, more damaged than ever.
Dylan resolves to win her back — if he can just figure out what he did wrong in the first place. (Every guy’s lament in a nutshell.) He decides to let her city make the arguments for their couplehood in a grand finale reminiscent of a big movie musical.
The Defending Champion
Kutcher is surprisingly effective in No Strings Attached as a sensitive late bloomer who realizes that even though he isn’t a doctor, he can teach one what it takes to be in a relationship. There’s a fairly complex prelude, where a teen version of the Kutcher-Portman couple is a no-go at summer camp. They have a not-so-rollicking first date at her father’s funeral years later. And still later, they meet-cute again, this time as adults at a farmer’s market.
With story help from Michael Samonek, screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether has fun flipping the standard gender stereotypes on their heads. Portman’s Emma is written to be too busy working on her medical bedside manner to learn the skills necessary to maintain a relationship, and too emotionally unavailable and introverted to even try. She wants sex with Adam, but she wants to keep it clinical… and convenient to her schedule.
Trouble is, Adam is emotionally needy, partly because he has a narcissistic TV star father (Kevin Kline), whose idea of fun is making time with Adam’s ex-girlfriend and dispensing sage advice along the lines of, “Blow will even make you sleep with an ugly girl.” When Adam tells Emma he loves her, he might as well have called her an ugly bitch, because that ends things there and then. Despite a story that meanders under Ivan Reitman’s direction, Oscar-winner Portman and heart-throb Kutcher deliver solid performances that help sell us the pros and cons of their star-crossed arrangement.
In Benefits, the writers sharpen character edges to present a journey to happily ever after with deep, treacherous valleys, and sharp peaks. Featuring two of America’s greatest cities front and center also makes for a highly cinematic experience. The two Strings leads are quite likeable — so much so, in fact, that there’s not much bite between them. Where the character strengths and differences in Benefits allow Kunis and Timberlake to rock a Tracy-Hepburn vibe that gives the movie heat, Strings puts Portman more firmly in the driver’s seat. Her Emma is content to enjoy Dylan in the sack, then go on her way, leaving the Kutcher character unfulfilled.
Jamie in Benefits, and Adam in Strings both endure a parent who is an over-sexed adolescent in behavior if not in age. Standard template stuff. If the parents act like kids, then the kids are seen as the smart and wise ones and that’s who the movie is aimed at in the first place.
Both movies are about casual sex, and there’s lots of it onscreen. The challenge is to make it funny, which they do, with mixed results, by talking about body parts and functions in graphic detail. Some of these scenes are even educational. Women will learn even more from Friends With Benefits about the male perils of having to pee with a hard-on than they did from Steve Carell’s bravura bathroom struggle in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Quite the visual here. Who says Americans are puritanical?
Both films are highly watchable — did I mention the sex? — and the four charming leads deliver formidable star power. Both will leave you with the feeling that makes all good rom-coms work — that love conquers all.
In 1989’s When Harry Met Sally (Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan), Harry’s arguments against the possibility of male-female friendships were thoroughly convincing. The truth made them funny. On the other hand, the films in this smackdown are meant to be taken with a much bigger grain of salt.
Still, if you want to spend two hours seeing great looking people having R-rated, casual sex on their way to a more meaningful relationship, you will probably be more engaged by Jamie and Dylan than the genial but less interesting Emma and Adam. Benefits just seems more fleshed out. Dylan has a real issue to deal with in an aging father, as compared with Adam, who has a cartoon dad. Jamie’s mom Lorna is somewhat caricaturish, but her daughter’s plight — being left alone to figure life out on her own — feels real.
Both these films deliver the superficial goods, but the one with more truth and more heart is Friends With Benefits.
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