I have two difficult things to confess. The first is that this God awful looking film from its trailer was actually my favourite film of Movie Con. And the second, even more of a choking here, is that Friends With Benefits is better than Natalie's No Strings Attached. And don't even get me started on the mess that leaves me with my cheese chunks.
This was one of those "there's nothing else on" choices that we made, which actually turned out the best possible choice we could have made seeing as the secret screening for that evening had not even entered the culturemouse Filmdar (which you can find here, by the way. PLUG!). I knew it would be harmless fun, but I had absolutely no expectations for it whatsoever. Justin Timberlake playing the romcom "prince"? Who sings? Bleurgh. But then a fact, which if known to me beforehand had fallen out of my head, appeared: this is a Will Gluck film. Will Gluck did Easy A. And the video intro from Mila Kunis and Timberlake before the film started? Very funny - contagious, even. It started to look promising. And then Emma Stone happened.
Emma Stone is quite probably the most hilarious thing about this film, and she's only in it for five minutes, breaking up with Timberlake (Dylan) after he's late turning up to a JOHN MAYER concert. Such is her love for JOHN MAYER she ends the relationship immediately after he shows even the slightest indifference towards him. I emphasise JOHN MAYER, as after a while that's the only thing she can blurt out which leads to a priceless phone call scene later on when Mila Kunis (Jamie) tells her to stop calling and leave Dylan alone. "JOHN MAYER!"
So five minutes in and I'm fits of laughter. It bodes well: a great film shouldn't need to earn your credence, it should have it from the off and that's what Friends With Benefits does so charmingly, and so bitingly too. It's consistently funny, sometimes hilarious, and that's all down to the smart script and the surprisingly magical chemistry between the lead cast.
Timberlake proved himself (I begrudge) in The Social Network, but with this, he's now established himself as a strong lead actor. Yes, he may be contractually obliged to sing in every one of his movies, but aside from that he's able to craft out a perfectly balanced non-arsehole/non-wet blanket bachelor who also shoulders an emotional vulnerability stemmed from his parents' divorce, sister's single parenting and father's gradual Alzheimer's, which actually makes him incredibly likable. He suits this role well, proving he can flex his range. His comic acting and timing is also a revelation - when he's rescued from the Hollywood Sign the whole screen was in hysterics. And playing on the fact he has "number dyslexia" is brilliantly done throughout the film.
Mila Kunis as always is a delight, and it's great to see her finally breaking out into some major roles after hiding behind the much maligned face of Meg Griffin all these years. Here she is sparky, vivacious, a little off her rocker, but she's immensely relatable as well (and so pretty to look at). It's funny how she and Natalie have managed to basically do the same role after pairing up in Black Swan...
The support roles are ace too - Emma Stone as aforementioned, but Woody Harrelson is fun to watch too as the gay best mate/work colleague, not taking it too OTT. A shout out too to the obnoxious snowboarder who's on-going random hatred of Dylan is a nice touch.
Will Gluck's script, dialogue and smart casting elevates Friends With Benefits from the bland genre, but it's clear he wanted to keep to the rom-com rules: only-would-happen-in-film cliches, obvious obstacles and solutions, and a predictable happy ending. But he is able to deftly and enjoyably sustain character quirks, habits, philosophies, opinions and behaviours, and this helps to really identify with and understand the friendship between Dylan and Jamie, before it becomes a relationship. There are some great pay-offs with a (non) Third Eye Blind song and a flashmob, which shows this is intelligent romantic film-making at it's very best. I loved the constant banter of LA vs New York as well. Gluck is one to trust.
There are lots of comparisons to be made between this and No Strings Attached, but this is better moulded, better executed, and is more rewarding than its "rival" counterpart, which when held up next to this, actually contains so much dross.
The trailer does it a total disservice - it's witty, touching, the pop culture references are spot-on, and the performances are a treat. These are lovable characters that you really route for - YES I JUST SAID JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE WAS LOVABLE. Shoot me now. Or better still, go see Friends With Benefits with not just your girly mates, but with anyone you like. Maybe not your insane John Mayer friend though...