“Let’s play tennis,” says an eager Justin Timberlake after giving Mila Kunis’ curvy behind a once-over. Contrary to the popular definition of the sport, he isn’t looking for some exercise. Rather, the couple is getting action off of the courts in an attempt to prove that the act of intercourse can be as emotionally charged as an innocent tennis match. Before you roll your eyes and begin to mindlessly recite the plot that we all know by heart, give “Friends with Benefits” a chance. Sure, it recycles worn-out tales. But director Will Gluck (of “Easy A” fame) has turned something trite into a fast-paced romp that throws out the cliches for knee-slapping and unique wit.
It begins on an innocuous note: boy meets girl. Boy, however, does not like girl. And girl does not like boy.
The girl is Jamie (Mila Kunis), an aggressive headhunter in pursuit of her latest conquest, Dylan (Justin Timberlake). Though he is perfectly content with being the art director at a small yet successful Internet company, Dylan eventually lets himself be wooed by Jamie’s charming offer and uproots to New York, where he has landed a job at GQ. Jamie, having done her job, merely shakes his hand and walks away.
But she quickly returns. Because if you met a guy who looked like Timberlake, you would come running back as well. Jamie and Dylan embark on the traditional path of friendship — lunch dates, secret spots and, of course, sharing tales of relationship woe. Kunis’ candor and Timberlake’s boyish charm turn their camaraderie into more of a bromance than a liaison until the moment they both admit that they, quite frankly, miss sex. Thus the brilliant idea is formed and a pact is made (sworn on a Bible iPad app, no less).
After wrestling with a few initial complications, the good ol’ chums seem to have the whole friends-with-benefits system down pat. Their relationship is frantic, and yet it works. Clothes off, jump into bed, pick a position — rather than awkwardness, there is a strange sort of benevolence and consideration. For a few scenes, it appears that this too-good-to-be-true arrangement might actually have a happy ending. Jamie and Dylan still remain the friendliest of friends, it sure is a great stress-reliever and the sex is mind-blowing (from what we see of it, anyway).
But all good things come to an end and, what do you know, feelings begin to arise. Here is where the previously dynamic plot falters. What once had potential to be a hilarious and refreshing comedy that brimmed with original wit begins to slip into sappy chick-flick mode, molding into the very kind of rom-com that the characters themselves detest. Jamie and Dylan struggle to sort out their emotions in typical angsty fashion, with dysfunctional families thrown in for good measure.
Maybe it’s time to address the elephant in the room. How many more films can Hollywood spit out about friends who want to get some? However, despite the striking similarities between this film and another recent release, the clever “Friends with Benefits” reinvents conventions. Instead of an awkwardly matched pair, there sizzles the undeniable chemistry between Kunis and Timberlake. Instead of a strange period mix, there is the perfectly timed motif of Semisonic’s “Closing Time.” And instead of melodramatic character expositions that we frankly don’t give a damn about, “Friends with Benefits” entertains with quick-witted humor that, when launched at a frenzied pace and paired with just the right amount of cheesiness, is ultimately what makes the film the answer to all of rom-coms’ problems.
Cynthia Kang is the arts editor.