2011 must have been an unoriginal year for rom-com screenwriters. While Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was lining up his project No Strings Attached, about two friends who try to balance friendship and courtship, out came Friends with Benefits, with a nye-identical plot and a star-studded cast including Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis and Woody Harrelson.
Quite like No Strings Attached, Friends with Benefits plods along exactly as you’d expect it to: two mates – Timberlake’s graphic designer Dylan and Kunis’ recruiter Jamie – end up between the sheets and find their friendship tested along the way. Plot-wise, there’s very little originality and no surprises: it plods along at a surprisingly bouncy pace, and hits the typical structural beats you’d expect of a contemporary rom-com. Not ground-breaking in any way, but Friends with Benefits is inoffensively made, sticking to the script pretty tightly.
Where it does attempt something different, however, it makes for interested viewing, tinged with frustration as many of these elements aren’t explored enough. Notably, Dylan’s father – a touching performance from Richard Jenkins – is hinted at having early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, sprinkled throughout with brief phone conversations and more hamfistedly explored in the film’s somewhat sluggish second act. It’s the film’s only genuine emotional grounding, and the relationship between Dylan and his father feels natural and also pretty sad – it’s clear they’ve got history, and both Timberlake and Jenkins manage to convey the trickiness of such a situation without using it as a cheap excuse to sympathise with Dylan. Yet while a promising concept, it’s mostly discarded towards the end to prioritise this run-of-the-mill romance, and ends up having less influence on the plot than such an under-represented plot thread could’ve.
And the romance that’s meant to anchor this romantic comedy is as run-of-the-mill as it gets. The light-hearted chemistry between Kunis and Timberlake is solid, and it’s not hard to imagine as a pair of friends that fall into this situation, but sadly it’s just nothing special at all. The operatic, predicable way their fling plays out – from flirtatious moments as friends to bickering lovers – is so overdone by now that taking a concept such as attachment-free sex and not doing anything new with it – instead turning it onto classic cheesy rom-com fare – seems a bit pointless. There’s potential here for a rom-com that bucks these trends and shows the tribulations of when these situations don’t turn into romance, but sadly Friends with Benefits plays it safe.
Simply put, Friends with Benefits takes an interesting concept that could’ve done something new within the overcooked rom-com genre, but churns out a perfectly watchable, occasionally funny and brisk film that’s sadly very middle-of-the-road. Aside from one interesting plot thread, there’s nothing here to distinguish Friends with Benefits from the bevy of other perfectly acceptable yet dull rom-coms that pervaded cinemas in the early-2010s. Check it out if the idea of Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake navigating the world of no-strings love appeals to you, but be prepared for a bang-average experience that you’ll start forgetting pretty shortly after.