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Friends With Benefits

Midway through Friends With Benefits, Jamie, the female lead, congratulates herself on her understanding of love and sex based on her grasp of “history, personal experience, and romantic comedies.” There’s precious little evidence of such comprehension at work onscreen. It’s apparently intended as a wicked-funny take on contemporary sexual mores and the human heart among the affluent urban young. But it comes off as a self-satisfied mixture of crude sensibilities and smugly sentimental pop psychology.

Jamie (Mila Kunis) is a push-push-push corporate headhunter who recruits and maneuvers Dylan (Justin Timberlake), a hot-stuff editor at an LA website, into a similar but much bigger job at GQ magazine. (And how much money did that product placement shave off the movie’s costs?) Conveniently, both Jamie and Dylan are at relational loose ends after rejections by their partners and both are cynical about the necessity for deep personal connections. So, when Dylan proposes to his new friend that they have sex with each other without any expectation of emotional strings, it seems to them an eminently practical arrangement, and they have at it.

It would require at least a modicum of wit and finesse to bring off this obvious setup, but director/co-writer Will Gluck proceeds from there to an extended, creepy-cutesy montaged Kama Sutra-like exposition of the partners’ mutual erotic accommodation, along with a fillip of potty-mouthed humor. Friends exudes an adolescent self-confidence that it’s being provocatively amusing but mature in these and other scenes, but what most characterizes the movie is its clumsy juvenile cluelessness. When Gluck tosses a case of Alzheimer’s into the mix in an appeal to poignance, and make matters worse by casting the situation as soulfully consolatory, Friends becomes more offensive than annoying.

The two stars were fairly fated to appear to ill effect, but Kunis fares a little better. Timberlake doesn’t show much adeptness at light comedy here; his playing is rushed and uninflected. Vet Patricia Clarkson, as the slightly chemically addled mother of Jamie, tries to lend a little panache to things, but Woody Harrelson, doing something like a combination of his Cheers bartender and his basketball hustler in White Men Can’t Jump, gives the most unpersuasive impersonation of a gay man since Anthony Hopkins’ sexually iffy Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter.

george sax

Watch the trailer for Friends With Benefits

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