FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS Review: First Half is Half-Decent, The Second, Half-Witted

After the midpoint the plot contrivances wore me down as they always do and there were no surprises - but if all you want is an airheaded romantic comedy, and I know some people out there do, you could do a lot worse.

rating: 2.5

Sex without love is an empty experience. But as empty experiences go, it's one of the best. - Woody Allen
Stop me if you€™ve heard this one before. A pair of friends, who happen to be of opposite sexes, are tired of the dating game and decide what they should do is have sex without all that awkward love and relationship stuff. This works for a while but soon it becomes clear they want something more, but everyone else they see proves unsuitable. Eventually love will either bring them together or push them apart. There could conceivably be a conflict followed by a big romantic gesture. That€™s not giving anything away, just a thought that occurs from having seen more than enough modern romantic comedies to last me between now and death. If you haven€™t seen No Strings Attached (tagline: €˜Friendship has its benefits€™) you might recognise the premise from a Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine figure that, you know, €˜THIS is good... but THAT would be good too.€™ In Friends With Benefits the couple are played by Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, who both last year appeared in Best Picture nominees, and they both get dumped in the opening sequence. I can just about believe that in the case of Timberlake, but struggle to believe it in the case of Kunis. Hasn€™t her boyfriend seen Black Swan? They have, at least, seen other romantic comedies. When the pair meets (it really isn€™t important, but he comes from L.A. to New York because GQ wants to hire him, and she has to show him round the city and try to convince him to take the job) they watch romantic comedies on TV and mock their irritating music and corny contrivances. While I wouldn€™t reach as far as calling them €˜refreshing€™ the scenes at least have a certain jolliness and charm, as does the scene where they swear an oath on an iPad bible app (Apple products pop up in just about every new rom-com). They even offer the (false) hope that the movie won€™t fall into those same clichés that it mocks. The sex scenes have a fun, matter-of-fact smuttiness, and the stars are perfectly fine in these roles; Timberlake, as much to my surprise as anyone€™s, has turned out to be a pretty decent actor. However the movie plays it too safe by suggesting an anti-rom-com attitude in its first half only to give in in its second half and conform to all those irritating conventions; I must have seen fifty movies where a girl runs off because she overhears the boy talking about her out of context. Another curious convention of these movies is to use fairly well-respected actors to play small parts. I can only imagine they are well paid. Woody Harrelson has a fairly funny role as Timberlake€™s gay friend (although I could have done without his women-are-all-the-same attitude, which would have been deemed sexist from a straight character). Patricia Clarkson plays Kunis€™s mother; she€™s the inappropriately dirty middle-aged woman, a stock role for such movies. She brings something to the part, because she€™s Patricia Clarkson, so in her case I won€™t look a gift horse in the mouth. Richard Jenkins is another matter; he plays Timberlake€™s father, whom they visit when the couple fly out to Los Angeles. When I realised his character had Alzheimer€™s I cringed; he does a good job too because he€™s a damn good actor, but the whole character is inappropriate for the movie and felt cheap and manipulative. In fact, if you do see the film, you can pretty much leave as soon as they arrive in LA. I can€™t recommend Friends With Benefits €“ its second half in particular isn€™t funny enough to cover up its sentimentality. But you know what? If all you want is an airheaded romantic comedy, and I know some people out there do, you could do a lot worse. After the midpoint the plot contrivances wore me down as they always do and there were no surprises. But I laughed a good few times in the first half, and that was a surprise. Friends With Benefits is in U.K. cinemas from September 9th.

I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.