Friends with Benefits is what No Strings Attached should have been -- snappy, clever, and refreshingly contemporary. Co-writer/director Will Gluck uses the same biting wit found in his film Easy A and easily breathes new life into a soggy genre that benefits greatly from the natural charm and smooth chemistry of its likeable leads, Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake. The pair inject the film with a winning vitality, which should help audiences brush aside the initial sensation of déjà vu. Kunis and Timberlake are perfectly at ease with anything the script requires, from naughty-funny sex scenes to lightweight dramatic conflicts. Not only do they handle the tart banter with an assured, playful back-and-forth, but there's also chemistry between them that is quite palpable.
Kunis plays Jamie, a corporate recruiter who's "emotionally damaged," and Timberlake plays Dylan, the new GQ art director, who's "emotionally unavailable." Being young, good-looking, married to their jobs, and frequently burned by other relationships, naturally they tempt fate by trying the sex-without-complications thing ("two people should be able to have sex the way they play tennis"), but the whole thing starts to feel a bit "college-y," and despite Jamie and Dylan's mutual declaration that they'll maintain a strictly physical relationship, emotions start to creep into their best-laid plans.
Working from the sharply observed script by himself, Keith Merryman, and David Newman, Gluck mines healthy laughs by making fun of the current state of studio romantic comedies; however, much like the title implies, the film wants to have it both ways -- it decries the "lies" of Katherine Heigl movies yet follows a similar script; it shuns the cheesy rock stylings of John Mayer yet fills the soundtrack with acoustic versions of sappy pop love songs -- and, eventually, this postmodern vehicle proves guilty of adhering too closely to the tired conventions that it satirically pokes fun at.
Hypocritical elements aside, Gluck not only draws terrific performances from Kunis and Timberlake, but also from the veteran supporting cast. Scene stealer Woody Harrelson plays an over-the-top gay sports editor and Patricia Clarkson shines as Jamie's aging '70s free-spirited mom. There's also an amusing, if not misplaced, cameo by pro-snowboarder Shaun White.
While it's true that we all know the formula, when it works and the chemistry is just right we love seeing exactly what we expect and hope for, and Friends with Benefits delivers just that.