Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Film Review: "Friends with Benefits" (***)

I guess you could factor this film as checking off another item on the list of this year, although not quite as pessimistically as other films over the past couple of months. I realize that many of the films this year have been moderately okay by different standards, but I they mostly left me unmoved and unimpressed. I guess Friends with Benefits earns itself some brownie points for being slightly better than most films I've seen this summer. It's clearly nowhere close to Will Gluck's previous film, Easy A, a cliche masterwork in my own opinion. I guess this film lacks because of why most films lack this summer, and that's the lack of time spent on them.

You can't go through the first few minutes of the film without saying that it feels rushed. You have to catch up with it, and it's only a minute in. The film's plot is a little more difficult to explain than one might think. Dylan is an art director who is sought out by Jaime, a headhunter, for a job at GQ in New York. Dylan uproots his LA lifestyle for the job, and starts out an interesting friendship with Jaime. Eventually they get the drunken idea that if they could set emotions aside, they could start having casual sex with each other. In any lesser film, like its counterpart No Strings Attached, that'd probably be just it.

Thankfully, Gluck knows at least the basic building blocks on how to make a film interesting, and adds different little plots to the film to help round out the characters. Dylan deals with the corroding mental state of his father, who is afflicted with alzheimers, and Jaime deals with abandonment issues from her easygoing mother. Those characters, portrayed by Richard Jenkins and Patricia Clarkson respectively, are the two strongest and most interesting tangents of the film. If only some of the other supporting players were the same. Dylan's magician nephew is the prime example of a cliche that doesn't quite belong, and it's too much of a cutesy moment.

Another thing that I didn't quite notice until after the fact was the acting in the film, and I only noticed it at all because my friend commented on it afterwords. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are both good, but they quite often are lacking the sort of flair that makes their past work so fascinating. You could blame that on their simpleton characterizations, with Timberlake being a lovable lunk and Kunis being rom-com obsessive. Still, you get the impression that they could've done better. I will give credit to Woody Harrelson, who is simply hilarious as Dylan's gay best friend.

Something that stuck out to me among the stronger parts of the film is the setting, which leans very much on a sense of place. It paints Los Angeles as very banal and simple, but when it comes back to New York, it really takes advantage of how beautiful the scenery can be. The most creative cinematography comes from these large and grand shots of the city. The film is very much packed with cliche, and occasionally to its own detriment. Friends with Benefits manages to stay afloat through its abundance of wit, and mindfulness of heart. One still kind of wishes they'd taken another month or two to work out the kinks. And the film is worth mentioning simply because it makes public how the song "Soul Sister" has absolutely nothing to do with anything.

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