Like, wouldn’t it be great if men and women could physically satisfy each other without having to actually interact? Because when men and women interact, man, things get complicated. Because, like, women, they say one thing and mean another. And men, they really like sex. It’s basically all they think about. Hey, wow! I think I have a premise for a new romantic comedy!
Friends With Benefits, the slightly more tolerable remake of No Strings Attached, stars Justin Timberlake, America’s own Renaissance man, as a hip young bastard who runs a blog that is based in LA even though realistically it would probably be based in Silicon Valley. Executive recruiter Mila Kunis convinces him to move from LA to New York and take a job as art director for GQ. I got thrown off for a bit wondering just how much GQ paid for this outrageously central product placement; when I got back on track, Justin Timberlake had struck up a banter- and beer-based friendship with Mila Kunis. Spoiler alert: They have sex. Both of them are real good sex people. They do it all the different ways. Then they stop having sex and start pretending they’re not in love with each other, but then realize that all of their emotional complications arise from not wanting to repeat the mistakes their parents made. Romantic feelings are publicly declared, Mila Kunis cries without smearing her eye makeup, fin.
But forget all that, because the plot is really just a rickety frame on which to hang cultural references. My God, the cultural references. Flash mobs! Street art! Smart phones! ’90s nostalgia! Guerrilla advertising! iPads! Sexting! Shaun White?!? They really do their darndest to prove to you that this movie takes place in 2011. (You know what really places this movie in the now? The fact that it seems to have been funded entirely by product placement. GQ, the NYC tourism bureau, Apple, Sony, PlayStation, Shiner…?)
The most annoying way in which this film tries to encapsulate the current cultural climate is by making its characters as media-saturated as possible. In the twenty-first century, we have apparently transcended platitudes simply by becoming conscious of their presence in our lives. These hip young New Yorkers with their telephone cameras and their rainbow parties are too self-aware to internalize movie cliches without repeatedly making self-deprecating verbal references to said cliches in casual conversation, preferably while incorporating pop psychology terms like “emotionally damaged,” “intimacy issues” and “coping mechanism.” Their banter is wholly unsatisfying because it’s not actually witty, it’s just a bunch of semi-tactless observations and mashed-together pop culture references delivered as if they were jokes (I haven’t heard Third Eye Blind mentioned this many times since… ever).
They meet cute, and then later on, Justin Timberlake makes fun of how cute their meet cute was. This film makes its characters condemn the upbeat pop song that plays at the end of a fake romantic comedy, then plays that exact song at the end of the movie. It’s so wink-wink nudge-nudge post-post-post ironic I can’t even parse it because I am too busy vomiting. All of these conflicting layers of tropes add up to nonsensical climactic lines like “with friends like you, who needs friends,” and yet we are supposed to find them believable because they also say things like “sometimes I wish my life was a movie”? Fuck off.
It’s straight mocketing because it’s all a front to sell the same boring old hetero masculine values. At one point, Justin Timberlake says he has never brought a girl home to his parents—”a real girl, not a friend.” Only sexual partners are Real Girls. If you’re not “crazy,” you’re not a Real Girl, or at least not a “girly” girl. Femininity as an affliction: soooo retro. Mila Kunis’s character—casually femme, tanned and husky-voiced, like that girl in the Expedia commercials who uses “rockin’ ” as an adjective—is blunt and sassy and says derisive things like “you’re such a girl” and “don’t be a pussy,” which is supposed to communicate a veneer of low-maintenance masculinity that somehow accentuates her femininity, like Sarah Silverman’s baseball tees. Both main characters even have unisex names (Jamie and Dylan; I actually forget which is supposed to be which). However, she does have a uterus, so she has a fondness for romantic comedies, which is supposed to make her relatable to us because sentimentality is the most taboo thing imaginable in a world that prizes stereotypical maleness. Thus is cliche reframed and resold as edginess.
What else makes this movie totally up-to-the-minute? A gay sidekick, a casual rape joke, an overcome speech disability as a marker of character, occasionally flippant and mostly tokenized treatment of Alzheimer’s and alcoholism, totally conflicting messages about romance and humor and friendship and emotion and gender roles. Welcome to the 2010s.