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‘Friends With Benefits’

Flirty romp conjures ghost of Free Love

by Giovanni Fazio

Friends With Benefits” is one of those American movies with a title whose nuance is lost entirely in the translation; local distributor Sony didn’t even try, titling it “Stay Friends” for the Japan market. “Sekkusu Furendo” might have been more on the mark, but was presumably a bit too blunt for those expecting a light romantic comedy with a contrived meeting between Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis.

Yet “Friends With Benefits” is about nothing if not sekkusu furendo-ship. The film poses the notion that all the joy goes out of a good male-female friendship when it becomes a relationship, with all the heavy baggage that comes with commitment. Wouldn’t it be nice if, just once, you could have the low-drama steadiness of a close friend, but with steamy scrumping on the side?

You can be sure that the boomers who came of age during the Free Love 1960s are now grinning sagely and muttering “Good luck with that!” But hope springs eternal, and Timberlake and Kunis embark upon their own personal quest for what feminist author Erica Jong once called the “zipless f-ck”, an “absolutely pure” sexual encounter “free of ulterior motives.” (She also mentioned it was even rarer than unicorns.)

Romantic comedy “No Strings Attached” already took this approach a few months back, but even Natalie Portman couldn’t do anything with the dead weight known as Ashton Kutcher. Portman’s “Black Swan” costar Kunis got luckier with Timberlake; the two create more sparks on screen, they’re nimbler with the jokes, and they benefit from director Will Gluck’s brisk direction. Gluck (“Easy A”) comes from the racier side of modern American comedy, and proves that your usual female-targeted rom-com can be just as raunchy as any Judd Apatow movie aimed at the dudes.

Gluck opens his film with Kunis and Timberlake, one in Manhattan and the other in L.A., being simultaneously dumped by their lovers; the lines here ring savagely true. They wind up together when headhunter Jamie (Kunis) woos net-savvy art-director Dylan (Timberlake) to try the East Coast and a job with GQ magazine. She charms him even more than the city, but after spending time together, romance doesn’t blossom so much as desire. The duo swear on a holy bible iPad app that their deal will be “no relationship, no emotions, just sex.”

This being Hollywood, of course, we know it’s just a matter of time before emotional connection and true love will rear its sky-pie head, but fair enough: The film tears cynically into syrupy rom-com convention for a good 90 minutes before admitting, hey, maybe a happily ever after wouldn’t suck a bag of dog dirt.

Kunis has a grounded, down-to-earth appeal that belies her beauty, so much so that it’s a bit hard to buy her as riddled with “issues”; Timberlake has an easier job with his character’s bog-standard male avoidance of commitment.

Turning up in amusing supporting roles are Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s alcoholic ’70s-hippie mom (“So, is my daughter your little slampiece now?”) and Woody Harrelson as Dylan’s predatory queer sports editor; Richard Jenkins is even more cliched (hard to do at this point) as Dylan’s dad, suffering from the kind of Hollywood-Alzheimer’s that makes you forget to wear pants in public.

It’s funny to note how explicit Hollywood can get about sex when laughs are involved, but how skittish it is otherwise. The first bedroom scene between Jamie and Dylan, played silly, has no problem with suggesting that our star-crossed lovers are going down on each other. Yet when it comes to the romantic sex scene later in the film, when the pair have actual feelings for each other, the proceedings get quite coy, and Gluck falls back on your textbook montage of a hand here, a lip there, cutting every other second to make sure you don’t notice the body doubles. Sharp, sparring dialogue are given to Kunis and Timberlake in spades; a passionate embrace that threatens to melt the celluloid, nuh-uh. I’d bet good money, though, that some of their fans would have paid to see exactly that.