Perhaps fitting for a movie about pals looking for sex without commitment, Friend With Benefits wants to have it both ways: It decries the “lies” of Katherine Heigl romantic comedies, yet follows the same script. It shuns the wuss-rock stylings of John Mayer, yet gooses up the soundtrack with a drippy solo acoustic version of “Boys Don’t Cry.” And it affects a cooler-than-thou attitude while transcending the genre in precisely zero ways. Director Will Gluck adopted the same tone for his last effort, Easy A, which also embraced all the clichés it loudly purported to explode, but just as a great star turn from Emma Stone saved that film, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis save this one. In the early going, especially, before their casual hook-ups are swamped by complications, their chemistry is so electric that the entire movie could have survived (and thrived) on 90 minutes of pillow talk.
Instead, there’s baggage, and lots of it. First seen getting dumped on separate coasts, Timberlake and Kunis meet cute in a New York airport, where Kunis, a headhunter, arrives to shuttle Timberlake to an interview for an open position as GQ’s new art director. After much cajoling, Kunis convinces Timberlake to leave L.A. for New York, and since she’s the only person he knows in the city, Timberlake turns to her for friendship. Having both been burned by love, they initially resist the urge to follow through on what two impossibly witty, beautiful, compatible young people like themselves would normally be inclined to do. But like a lot of movie couples recently—Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in Love And Other Drugs—they try to divorce casual, super-fun sex from emotional consequence.
From there, Friends With Benefits feels overly inclined to explain why they’re so screwed up, bringing in Kunis’ hippie-dippie mother (Patricia Clarkson), who commits to nothing, and Timberlake’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (Richard Jenkins), whose wife divorced him when the going got tough. Clarkson and Jenkins bring impressive dimension to their characters, but whenever the film gets away from Timberlake and Kunis’ flirty banter, it feels like an unfortunate distraction. Romantic comedies—and this is one, in spite of its phony irreverence—turn largely on star power, and theirs is transcendent, whether they’re casually trading one-liners on the streets or doing running commentary on their sexual escapades. They’d have been better off staying in bed.