The year after Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis played ballerina rivals in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan, they offered a pas de deux of a different kind: dueling romantic comedies about men and women who decide to have casual sex with no emotional commitment. Like Armageddon and Deep Impact or Volcano and Dante’s Peak, No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits are examples of the weird phenomenon where two films with nearly identical premises are released the same year—although neither of those disaster movie pairings feature Justin Timblerlake in the film that doesn’t share the title of his boy band’s most successful album. And if adding the Black Swan and ’N Sync connections on top isn’t strange enough, there’s also the fact that the respective rom-coms feature former That ’70s Show co-stars and future real-life married couple Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher. I wonder if they still argue about whose movie was better.
Which actually isn’t much of a debate. Without question, Friends With Benefits is the superior of these two films. It’s funnier, more cohesive, more visually interesting, and features stronger chemistry between stars Kunis and Justin Timberlake. On the other hand, its baseline level of competence also makes it less interesting to analyze. If Friends With Benefits was clearly made by promising creators with a solid understanding of the romantic comedy genre, No Strings Attached feels like it was made by space aliens who learned about humanity by watching Garden State, catching half a Nancy Meyers movie, and stumbling across a photo of Ashton Kutcher.
Though it was released first, No Strings Attached actually had to give up the Friends With Benefits title to the latter film. Written under the working title Fuckbuddies, No Strings Attached resulted from the rather odd creative pairing of up-and-coming screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether, who created her TV show New Girl on the back of its success, and iconic Ghostbusters helmer Ivan Reitman, muddling through his strange late-period career. (His previous directorial effort was 2006’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend.) Meriwether’s script is sparky, raunchy, and goofy. Reitman’s direction is flat, sluggish, and broadly sitcom-ish.
Portman stars as Emma, a driven doctor whose grueling work schedule leaves her little time to date. So when she runs into old summer camp friend/newly single aspiring screenwriter Adam (Kutcher), she enlists him to be her commitment-free sex buddy. Though the film milks some solid comedy from their height difference, Portman and Kutcher never quite develop believable chemistry together. In fact, Portman is just generally an odd fit for a raunchy screwball heroine who at one point drunkenly yells, “You look like a pumpkin, bitch!” at a spray-tanned woman.
In contrast, Friends With Benefits is the result of creators and actors working at the peak of their particular skillsets. Coming off the success of Easy A, writer/director Will Gluck casts Kunis as the brassy New York headhunter who lures Timberlake’s L.A.-based graphic designer to a job at GQ. Kunis’ Jamie is an “emotionally damaged” cool girl with a secret romantic side. Timberlake’s Dylan is an “emotionally unavailable” charmer with a penchant for breaking into song. As in No Stings Attached, the duo decides to strike up a platonic sexual arrangement. But Friends With Benefits has even more fun with that premise in an extended sequence depicting the business-like formality Jamie and Dylan adopt in bed. Freed from the pressure to woo one another, they can just be honest about what they like and don’t like, which results in a dynamic that’s both funny and refreshing.
Both films blatantly attempt to update the When Harry Met Sally formula with some R-rated Apatovian edginess. Whereas Harry and Sally explored emotional intimacy without sex, No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits explore sex without emotional intimacy, before ultimately ending up at the same fairy tale happy ending as that Nora Ephron classic. Dressing up standard rom-com storytelling with anti-rom-com window dressing paid off. Both projects grossed close to $150 million worldwide, with No Strings Attached taking a bigger chunk of that domestically. Friends With Benefits earned better reviews, however, and it’s had more cultural staying power since its release.
In addition to its better central pairing and more proudly raunchy nature, Friends With Benefits also uses its solid supporting cast better. Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, and Jenna Elfman play loving family members. Emma Stone and Andy Samberg cameo as uncaring exes. Jason Segel and Rashida Jones star in the fake rom-com that Jamie loves. Woody Harrelson originates the “What if a gay man were, like, a bro?” archetype character that has now somehow become Pete Davidson’s stock-in-trade. And Shaun White plays a heightened version of himself locked in a one-sided rivalry with Dylan. If the White and Harrelson gags drag a bit (watching Harrelson repeatedly say the word “cock” isn’t quite as funny as this film thinks it is), the supporting cast still helps build a cohesive world around the main characters. Gluck even finds surprising poignancy in a subplot about Dylan dealing with his dad’s Alzheimer’s.
On the other hand, the supporting cast of No Strings Attached is unnecessarily stacked and curiously underutilized. Kevin Kline plays Adam’s aging sitcom star dad, who shacks up with his son’s ex-girlfriend. Lake Bell is a neurotic co-worker, while Ludacris and future New Girl star Jake Johnson fulfill the best friend sounding-board roles. At one point SNL’s Abby Elliot pops up to do her Drew Barrymore impression for no discernible reason. Portman’s world includes Olivia Thirlby as her sister, Cary Elwes as a doctor who has approximately four lines, and a set of roommate besties played by the absolutely killer comedic trio of Mindy Kaling, Guy Branum, and Greta Gerwig.
When they aren’t randomly disappearing for long stretches at a time, each of these supporting players seem to think they’re in a slightly different rom-com. Which is understandable given how all over the place this film is. There are genuinely funny sequences like the one where Adam makes Emma a “period mix” featuring songs like “Bleeding Love” and “I’ve Got The World On A String.” Then there’s a climax where Kline’s character winds up in the hospital for overindulging on “Purple Drank” in an attempt to be like Lil Wayne.
The proudly self-aware Friends With Benefits has Dylan regularly comment on the hollow cheesiness of Jamie’s favorite rom-com, and, on the surface, No Strings Attached feels like that fake rom-com—complete with the “ambiguously upbeat pop song that has nothing to do with the plot, stuck in at the end to try to convince you that you had a great time at this shitty movie.” (Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” for the fake movie, Plain White T’s “Rhythm Of Love” for No Strings Attached.) Where Friends With Benefits is tightly plotted and uses its New York and L.A. locations to their maximum potential, No Strings Attached lacks visual texture and takes strange detours, like unnecessary glimpses into the production numbers of the High School Musical-esque TV show Adam works on.
Rockiness aside, though, No Strings Attached has more interesting things to say. Despite her cool girl sheen, Jamie is still a hopeless romantic and Friends With Benefits still ends with the classic rom-com trope of a commitment-phobic guy making a big romantic gesture to apologize for what a fool he’s been. (In 2011, that meant a flash mob.) In No Strings Attached, however, Adam is the romantic and Emma is the one with commitment issues. It’s a rare gender dynamic for a rom-com, and whereas (500) Days Of Summer looked at this type of commitment-averse woman from an outsider’s perspective, Meriwether pulled from her own commitment-phobic past to explore it from an insider’s one.
After Emma’s dad died while she was in college, she was forced to become a rock for her mom and sister. She learned to bury her emotions, rely solely on herself, and guard her heart from any vulnerability that might lead to future pain. That imperfect coping mechanism allowed her to become a highly competent doctor, but the cracks start to show when she meets a guy she genuinely falls for. All of the sudden, she’s an emotionally erratic hot mess. She instructs Adam to sleep with someone else to prevent their relationship from getting too serious, only to drunkenly show up at his house to stop him from going through with it. Yet when he tries to start a genuine relationship with her, Emma pulls away from that too.
Like many of the male leads of Judd Apatow films, Emma is the one who has to figure out how to grow up. And in the end, she’s the one who winds up making the big climatic dash to apologize for what a jerk she’s been. Adam, meanwhile, has no arc. In Emma’s words, he’s tall, annoyingly happy, and has the best heart, and he stays that way throughout the film. There’s not even any tension over whether Adam will realize he has more-than-friendly feelings towards Emma. It’s clear from the beginning that he already does.
While the idea of a flawed woman apologizing to a blameless man for her emotional inconsistency could sound like the worst kind of male wish fulfillment, that’s not how Meriwether writes it. That Adam doesn’t have his own arc is a feature, not a bug. His affably consistent affection in the face of Emma’s emotional messiness is the fantasy. If (500) Days Of Summer is about how hard it is to love an emotionally erratic woman, No Strings Attached is about how hard it is to be an emotionally erratic woman and how nice it would be if someone had the patience to love you anyway. It’s an appreciably unique angle on female wish fulfillment. It helps that kindhearted dependability is something that Kutcher—who’s had a long career of being very good in very bad rom-coms—is great at playing.
Which doesn’t entirely make up for No Strings Attached’s flaws. It still plays like a rom-com beamed in from another dimension where the rules of human behavior are just slightly different. Its intriguing core ideas can’t make up for the lack of connection between Portman and Kutcher, who never feel like a believable couple in the way that Kunis and Timberlake do. When it comes to this rom-com showdown, the winner is clear: Friends With Benefits is funnier and more charming. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more baffling movie with some subversive elements, go with No Strings Attached.
Next time: An ’80s throwback let Adam Sandler show off his sweet side in The Wedding Singer.