I loved the dizzying speed of the dialogue. It doesn’t have quite the snap-crackle-pop of His Girl Friday, and the jokes aren’t as witty, but it at least is attempting to replicate the manic pace of the classic screwball. It’s one of the wordiest scripts to come down the pike in a long time, and instead of sinking the comedic action in a blizzard of words, the words help aid the comedy. This is very difficult to do. A prime example is when the two of them, as friends (before the “benefits” come into play) sit at an outside bar in view of the Brooklyn Bridge. They have known one another less than 24 hours, so this is essentially a first encounter. She is driven to get him to sign his contract (she’s a headhunter) and he is vague in his replies. They banter, and the lines are quick and zippy, and the scene is filmed in dueling closeups. The lines are so quick that the closeups pile up in a dizzying fashion, and it’s an example of the way you film something being part of the funny that results. I wish more comedies today understood that. You can have funny lines, funny performances, but if the framing mechanism is dull or insensitive to the comedic implications, then jokes will fall like lead balloons.
Any movie that casually disses Nicholas Sparks – as an understood deal-breaker in any potential relationship – has my instant appreciation.
Its frank and most of all friendly attitude towards sex. It’s rather adult, actually, despite the fact that the characters are both unwilling/unable to commit to relationships. The sex scenes were played for laughs, because sex is often funny, and there was something about the portrayal that seemed kind (Here: This is what we adults do with each other, we all know it) as opposed to prurient.
“Character quirks” are best left in the hands of the professionals, and anything described as “quirky” is normally a red flag for me. You amateurs just put “quirks” in because you think characters need “quirks”, because that’s what you learned by watching dumb movies, and you don’t know anything about how to actually develop a character in print. (“Oh! I know! Let’s make her obsessed with glass-blowing! It’ll make her kooky and interesting! We haven’t seen that before!” Yeah, we haven’t, and there’s a reason for that.) But the “quirks” here seem more like legitimate character development, and the natural eccentricities that pretty much everyone exhibits, whether it be likes/dislikes, preferences, or opinions. No one is “normal”. The movie gets that. The characters here are not an amalgamation of phony quirks in the hopes that this will add up to a character. For example, the fact that Dylan (Justin Timberlake) cannot “do math”. It’s played up as a joke, with a couple of payoffs, very funny, and it’s smart writing. I also liked the fact that as he flies in and out of New York (in two separate scenes), he can’t help but start talking about “Captain Sully”, to whomever will listen, and how planes fly themselves these days – basically arguing with the cherished New York (and American) narrative of how heroic Sully was. I suppose this is because his father was an engineer – that point is made later – but in the playing of it, it doesn’t seem like a bossy plot point (“His father was an engineer: Therefore, he knows about planes”) – it more seems like a character-thing, a “quirk”, something almost compulsive in him. It has no overall “point”. But through that one detail, we get to know a lot about the character. The film is full of moments like that, and through this, we actually feel like we’re getting to KNOW these people.
The movie openly admits its romantic comedy status. The opening scene shows Mila Kunis waiting for her date outside a movie theatre that is playing a revival of Pretty Woman. The characters talk about the movies and how unrealistically romance is portrayed in the movies. Friends with Benefits has fun with the tropes, admitting them, acknowledging them, playing them out. It could have been too obvious, it could have been played up to the extent that that seemed to be the point of the movie, but Friends with Benefits takes a gentle humorous hand. But this brings me to a deeper issue, and one of the reasons I responded so favorably to the movie. One of my favorite books is A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I feel possessive about Possession. The two modern characters in Byatt’s book, Maud and Roland, are literary theorists and scholars, researching a previously-unknown connection between two Victorian-age poets. One of the points of Byatt’s masterpiece (and this was something that the film actually was able to address, difficult as it is) is that when a person becomes too knowing, when one is an expert in any given field, it can become a barrier between the person and actual experience. When one’s head is full of literary references, when one has read everything, then almost everything on the planet will remind you of something that was already said, once. Byatt’s point is that modern people, especially educated scholarly types, have lost their confidence in their ability to actually experience anything. When you come to realize that everything has been said before, and better, by someone else, then … how do you feel confident enough to even talk of love? This may seem esoteric and elitist, but only to people who have no comprehension what that feels like. And the thing about being an expert in something: you can’t just turn that off. Maud and Roland are experts in their chosen field, and yet when it comes to dealing with the real-live breathing human beside them, they get baffled, bogged down in historical context. It’s not just that real life pales in comparison to the life you read about in, say, Anna Karenina or Middlemarch. It’s not that simple. It’s that knowing too much, being burdened with all of literary history at your fingertips, can actually be a silencer. It is one of Byatt’s most pertinent points, and she makes it subtly and well, throughout the course of the book. Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Maud in the movie, has one line that is not in the book, but I was so glad they added it because it drove the point home. Maud and Roland lie in bed together, platonically, on a research trip. They talk about the poets they are tracking down, they talk about love, they start to talk personally about themselves. Roland makes a comment about how he’s “off” relationships because he can’t deal with the drama, and hurting people, and Maud responds in kind, sharing a story from her life. They lie there, thinking about it, and then a small smile comes across Paltrow’s face and she says, making fun of herself and him, “Aren’t we so modern.” I thought of Possession as I watched Friends with Benefits, with its acknowledgement that we’ve all seen all the movies, we all know the cliches, when we fall in love these things are working on us whether we like it or not. Friends with Benefits has fun with it. These hat-tips to cliches show up throughout, and, kind of like the first Scream, admits that the people in the movie have actually seen movies before. So many movies involve characters that seem to be completely isolated from the larger culture: they have never read a book (therefore, they would never make a Nicholas Sparks joke), they have never seen a movie (except when they go to a movie on a date IN the movie they are in), and they have no opinions about the movies they have seen. But here: the characters actually wrestle with/make fun of/yearn for the cliches of romantic comedies, at the same time they realize it is all a bunch of hooey.
This leads me to another thing I liked. Both lead characters seem smart (well, except for Dylan stumbling over adding up 2 plus 2). They do not suddenly become idiots when the plot requires it of them. They are smart people. They think they know who they are, as we all do. But then they realize they’ve got to let go a little bit of their own preferred narratives (She: “I’m damaged and messed up” He: “I’m bad at relationships.”) While both of those statements may be true, you have to take the leap anyway. Their stumble towards love feels human, then, as opposed to engineered by lazy screenwriters.
Despite the emotional ending, the film avoids a sentimental “A-ha” moment where one of the characters realizes, like a lightning bolt, that “OMG, I actually LOVE that person”. Their approach towards love is subtle, and you actually get the feeling that the emotion of Love has snuck up on both of them. Of course, since we all have seen movies before, we know they are going to get together in the end. But that’s the whole thing with genre: You have to be creative with it, you can’t rely on it to do your work for you: you still have to do your work so that tension and suspense is created. From Moment One in His Girl Friday it is clear that Walter and Hildy are madly in love with each other, but too proud/insane/driven to admit they were wrong. And poor Bruce Baldwin (played by Ralph Bellamy), who is engaged to Hildy, is obviously not a real threat to Walter. Walter takes one look at him, and knows the entire score. And Hildy knows, too. But those two are strong-willed temperamental characters, and they both will choose unhappiness, if only so that they do not have to admit that they were wrong. But even though we in the audience see the whole situation very early on, the movie rollicks forward at breakneck pace, and none of it seems illogical (people act insane when they’re in love – who of us out there in the darkness doesn’t know that), and we just get to anticipate with delight when everyone stops acting like a lunatic and everything gets straightened out. It’s like little kids who like to hear the same story read to them 1,000 times and they never get tired of it. That’s part of the joy of going to the movies. We are, like Maud and Roland in Possession, knowing, and modern: we’ve seen so much, we have so much context, everything in a movie reminds us of something else. But if the filmmaker has a strong hand and confidence in his/her material, then we get to settle back and watch those chips fall, delighted, even though we’ve seen similar situations 100 times.
There’s one moment during the section when Jamie and Dylan go visit Dylan’s dad and sister who live in a phenomenal beachfront property in Los Angeles. Dylan has invited her to come along, last-minute, because she’s bummed out about something and he thinks a long weekend away will cheer her up. She goes. She meets Dylan’s sister (Jenna Elfman) and at one point the two women sit on a couch and look through old photo albums of pictures of Dylan when he was a kid. Jamie is dying of laughter. Dylan comes across his sister and his FWB, looks at what is going on, and a subtle soft look comes over his face. It’s so subtle you might miss it. Not soft as in sentimental, but soft as in taken-off-guard, maybe a bit concerned … this situation strikes him as very girlfriend-y. But Timberlake doesn’t play the taken-aback part of it. He plays the cracking of the carapace of his own chosen narrative. It’s a strangely complicated yet simple little moment, and Timberlake plays it perfectly. It’s moments like that that are the tiny building blocks that help a film in a well-known genre land. You have to be sincere about your genre. You have to mean it.
Unless, of course, the point is that you don’t mean it and you just want to make fun of the genre – but Friends with Benefits wants to have it both ways: make fun of genre as well as succumb to it. It succeeds.