Rom-com. If there are six letters that sum up a genre more devoid of originality and surprises than the abbreviation of "romantic-comedy", I can't think of them. (Granted, I'm writing this at the bar while on my 4th beer of the night, but...) The genre is so pitiful that even the trailers spell out every beat of the movie, thus saving you the time and money to bother seeing them. Is there ever a real question whether the couple who initially hate each other won't fall madly in love by the last reel? Exactly.
In a bonus dose of uncreativity, Friends With Benefits as the disadvantage of coming a half-year after the dreadful (according to my girlfriend who says she hates rom-coms yet watches any I download for her) No Strings Attached (starring Ashton Kutcher and Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman; yeah, that happened), but somehow turns out not only tolerable, but enjoyable. (The fact we saw it free after strolling in after a screening of The Change-Up can't have hurt.)
The setup is the usual: A pair of beautiful people (Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake) decide that since they can't find anyone meaningful - yeah, it's partly sci-fi movie - they decide to have a sex-only relationship. Will they end up falling in love by the end? It would be spoiling to tell, but let's just hint that YES THEY DO!!!!
When the conclusion is foregone, how you get there is what counts and where FWB succeeds in having very appealing stars enabled by a knowing script and the director of Easy A, Will Gluck, to keep the familiar feeling fresh. There are scenes with the couple watching a terrible fictional rom-com starring an uncredited Jason Segel and Rashida Jones and riffing about how awful it is. Even when the film ranges through the part late in the second act when all these movies find a way to break the lovers apart, it does so with a subtext saying, "Yeah, we know this is crap and a waste of time, but it's Hollywood rom-com law that we do it otherwise we lose our discount at Starbucks, man." A heavy subplot involving Justin's father having Alzheimer's is salvaged by having dad played by Richard Jenkins and allowing it to illuminate Justin's dilemma. That the movie didn't crash and burn there is a minor miracle.
It also helps that there are colorful supporting turns from Patricia Clarkson as Mila's a-little-too-free-spirited Seventies love mama; Woody Harrelson as the gay sports editor of GQ magazine; Jenna Elfman as Justin's single-mom sister taken care of Dad; and Emma Stone as the John Mayer-obsessed girl who dumps Justin in the beginning. Gluck plays everything fast and light and manages to hit all the tired cliches of these flicks without making us hate them as we should.
Will Friends With Benefits change your life or rehabilitate the tired rom-com genre? Heck to the no! But what it does do is not make you wish you were cleaning your place or getting your kneecaps sandblasted instead of watching this. It's frivolous, unsubstantial and otherwise unnecessary, but it's fun and doesn't actively insult your intelligence and that's a minor miracle these days.
Score: 8/10. Catch a matinee or pay full price for date night. (So says my girlfriend.)