It’s easy to look at the movies coming out of Hollywood these days and declare that the movie industry has completely run out of ideas. After all, we just had the eighth installment of “Harry Potter,” the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the third “Transformers” and the second “Hangover” this summer alone, plus Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts playing completely recycled stars from the ’80s and ’90s in “Larry Crowne.”
And now, this Friday brings us “Friends With Benefits,” about a couple of twentysomething hotties who try and see if they can have a friendship where they can have sex without any emotional or legal commitments. This isn’t a sequel, per se, but it sure seems like a reboot of a movie that came out in January called “No Strings Attached — in fact, “No Strings Attached” was originally titled “Friends With Benefits.”
Add in the fact that both movies star one of the lead actresses from “Black Swan” — Natalie Portman in “Strings” and Mila Kunis in “Benefits” — and you might wonder if anyone’s bothering to do anything unique at all. But happily, and against all odds, “Friends With Benefits” surprises on every level as a terrific, witty, sexy, funny and genuinely appealing romantic comedy that might wind up finding a place on my end-of-the-year list of art house wonders and well-crafted crowd pleasers.
Right from the start, the film benefits from the fact its other star is Justin Timberlake, the pop-music wunderkind who’s proven to be one hell of a comedic talent in his surprising switch to acting. As Dylan, a magazine art director who’s recruited by headhunter Jamie (Kunis) to take over GQ magazine’s creative approach, he first displays just the right amount of cocky charm to win her over along with the audience.
But neither Dylan nor Jamie are looking to be won over, since each have been burned too many times and have decided they just want to have a fun, uncomplicated fling for a while. Soon they’re exchanging witty banter and knocking boots all over Manhattan, free to drop each other at any moment if and when another potential love interest comes along.
Of course, such complications do turn up, and the dynamic duo seems to handle the pivot into straight-up friendship well. But when Dylan is called back home to LA over the July Fourth weekend because his father (a terrific performance by Richard Jenkins) is starting to slip further into Alzheimer’s-related dementia, he asks Jamie to come along for emotional support and the two find that life, emotions and relationships are way more complicated than they ever expected.
It is in this subplot that “Friends” most strongly stands out from the pack of lame Hollywood rom-coms. How many other movies dare to touch on a serious issue like Alzheimer’s without carrying a heavy-handed message or turning it into a lame means of evoking tears from viewers? “Friends” avoids all the clichés one might fear given this kind of storyline.
The script by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Harley Peyton and director Will Gluck (who also soared above genre expectations with last fall’s “Easy A”) keeps that kind of attention to detail and cliché-busting throughout. Dylan and Jamie are smart people with detailed quirks and interests, and Timberlake and Kunis play their roles for all they’re worth; Timberlake is especially funny in a couple of scenes where he portrays Dylan singing out of tune and dancing horribly.
All told, this is vastly superior to “No Strings Attached” in every way, and it’s easily the best date movie to come down the pike in ages. It’s also the funniest movie so far this summer, next to “Bridesmaids,” and is a good bet to become a rom-com perennial.