Whenever I mentioned to someone that I was going to see Friends With Benefits (2011), their response always seemed to end in a variation of “…but yeah, it’s basically the same as No Strings Attached (2011), whether they had seen either movie or not. While I tried to maintain that the two movies were sufficiently different in plot, a part of me couldn’t help but agree with these people. It’s a classic Hollywood movie plotline: two fantastic-looking people hate each other/are best friends, are looking for love and end up finding it in the most unlikely of places, ie their best friend/mortal enemy. The predictability for very light viewing, and is generally the plot of every romantic chick-flick. Sure enough, before FWB started, they played the trailer for What’s Your Number, which you’ll notice follows a similar formula.
So yeah, I wasn’t really expecting to get much out of FWB, other than seeing Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis semi-nude. I was not disappointed in that department, but what I didn’t expect was the issues that this movie brought up. I did not expect to cry at any point in the movie, but I did. Several times. [I should probably warn you that there will be slight spoilers after this, if one would consider this movie a spoilable one].
So the plot goes as expected for the first third of the movie: Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis meet, Kunis being a hotshot head-hunter recruiting Timberlake as the art director for GQ. Kunis is adorable/hilarious while picking Timberlake up at the airport, the audience laughs and notes the light sexual tension between the two. Normal. Later on, after establishing a friendship the two lament about their previous relationships and how they both miss sex, while watching some cliche romantic comedy (yes, this movie is meta). A few minutes later they decide the way to resolve all their sex problems is to sleep with each other. After all, sex is just physical, right? And they don’t like each other in that way. It’s like playing tennis; go at it, then shake hands and part ways afterwards. Of course! So simple! These pretty people are so smart! This is also normal.
BUT THEN! Hold up, after sexing a few times, they both realise that they should stop doing the Friends With Benefits thing and start dating other people for real. That screws the plot over a little bit, but okay. Sure. Date other people. The casual sex stops, and Timberlake goes out on unsuccessful dates while Kunis starts seeing this cool doctor/ornithologist guy (I can’t remember if he was either or both or what. Not important) who seems pretty sweet but then ends up breaking her heart. SHOCK! So Timberlake asks Kunis to come see his parents for the 4th of July weekend or whatever, as friends. The audience is like “psht, sure, “friends”, whatever” and continue eating their popcorn.
THEN, HOLD UP! We meet Timberlake’s adorable nephew, his likable sister, and his father, who turns out to have Alzheimer’s disease. Yeah, friggin Alzheimer’s disease. He sometimes forgets who his family is, that his wife has left him, and occasionally he just takes off his pants, which I think was supposed to be humorous, but only made me end up crying harder. You’ve watched The Notebook, right? It’s that level of sadness, but dispersed between comic scenes like when Timberlake climbs onto the Hollywood sign, but it turns out he’s afraid of heights and has to be wrapped in a silver blanket and helicoptered off of it. Hilarious, right? I would laugh, but I am busy weeping over the man with Alzheimer’s.
God, FWB, it’s like you don’t even know you’re supposed to be a light-hearted romantic comedy. Why can’t you be more like No Strings Attached? That movie knew its place: highly predictable and containing nothing that made me really think about anything.
Except I maybe that’s not what it’s trying to be at all. Maybe it knows what it’s supposed to be, has reached some level of self-actualization and is attempting to subvert itself from the genre. There’s a scene where Timberlake and Kunis are watching a fictionalised, cliched romantic comedy (which stars Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, and looks like something I’d actually watch, even just for the lulz), and they dissect the hell out of the thing: from the romantic gestures to the music played in the background. There are awkard moments between the leads that attempt to mimick the awkwardness between people in reality, albeit still stylised in the Hollywood way.
As for the comparison between Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached, comparing the two brings to mind Garden State (2004) and Elizabethtown (2005), also two movies that have recieved flack for being too similar (or rather, E-town has been criticised for basically ripping off Garden State). Sure these movies use the same basic foundation to tell a story (a man’s father dies and he has to go back to his hometown, or two friends decide to have casual sex with each other), but the stories they have to tell are in themselves rather different. Garden State focuses on drug culture and defining oneself while Elizabethtown focuses on the power of music and other people. No Strings Attached tells a simple story of two people who think they can have casual sex without falling in love and then eventually fall in love, and Friends With Benefits is a subtle satire of the types of movies where that exact thing happens.
Plus, at the very end of the credits, they show Timberlake and Kunis watching bloopers from the fictional romantic comedy within the movie.
Guys, FWB is fucking meta.