Cleaving to screwball conventions, with 'Benefits'

Contemporary romantic comedies mostly seem to be in love with raunchy humor. Although "Friends With Benefits" boisterously deserves its "R" rating, it also deserves recognition for being a funny examination of two people who aren't sure what they want in a relationship.

It also helps that the snappy dialogue flies by so fast that the occasionally unfunny jokes do not linger.


This particular couple's "meet-cute" introduction firmly places them within the screwball tradition. In fact, there is much about this picture that will remind you of the zippy romantic comedies of the 1930s.

In case you don't make that connection on your own, director Will Gluck prominently displays a poster for 1934's "It Happened One Night" on an apartment wall. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are no match for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, but they do make for an agreeable modern screen team.

It's worth noting that Gable took off his shirt in that Frank Capra movie, but the so-called Walls of Jericho otherwise kept Gable and Colbert at arm's length. No such rules here. Let's just say that the movie's wardrobe budget for Timberlake and Kunis was minimal for certain scenes.

By bluntly acknowledging one of its screwball sources, "Friends With Benefits" announces that it's self-aware when it comes to genre conventions. That self-consciousness extends to the male and female lead characters, who are both attempting to bounce back from failed relationships.

Dylan (Timberlake) is a Los Angeles-based Web site art director and Jamie (Kunis) is the New York corporate headhunter whose bonus depends upon him accepting a job at a men's fashion magazine headquartered in New York. When they meet at a New York airport, Jamie is awkwardly climbing across a luggage carousel in an attempt to pick up something she dropped. This screwball situation immediately sets the tone.

In order to convince the reluctant Dylan to set aside his casual L.A. lifestyle and embrace the slicker pace in Manhattan, Jamie offers to show him around town. The movie itself does a pretty nice job of showing off the city's tourist attractions and upscale amenities. As they get to know each other, they learn that they've both recently been dumped by significant others.

Almost before they can order another drink, they find themselves entering into what they insist will be a no-strings-attached relationship. They rationalize that they can have physical relations without romantic involvement and its complications.

By the same token, they and the audience are keenly aware that the romantic comedy tradition virtually ensures that the man and woman will transcend all sorts of obstacles and reservations. Love has a way of triumphing in such movies.

It's amusing to watch as Dylan and Jamie try to adhere to their no-strings-attached philosophy while realizing that, well, they really do like each other. They may be urban hipsters who are never at a loss for ironic joking, but there's no denying that old-fashioned love is a powerful force in the universe.

Too many of the jokes in the script by Gluck, Keith Merryman and David A. Newman rely on frank references that verge on the clinical, but that's simply par for the course in early-21st-century comedy. The assumption is that audiences will automatically laugh at four-letter words, which, it must be said, they usually do.

These jokes zip by and are accompanied by better jokes that relate to the emotional lives of Dylan and Jamie.

The two of them romantically joust all the way across America, thanks to a trip to Dylan's boyhood home in L.A. That switch in location facilitates additional screwball situations, including a wild episode when they trespass onto the famed Hollywood sign.

Dylan and Jamie are flustered as they try to define and then redefine the exact nature of their friendship. Their persistence is a trait shared by the movie. The director and his fellow screenwriters refuse to give up on the romantic leads, and that sort of devotion is what ultimately forces Dylan and Jamie towards a romantic resolution that's arguably a law of physics in movies like this.

Although Timberlake's lack of range as an actor makes for a one-note performance, he does have chemistry with the more versatile Kunis. They click as a screen couple.


What also makes the movie so predictably satisfying is that the secondary casting includes Woody Harrelson as one of Dylan's colleagues and Patricia Clarkson as Jamie's mother. As in vintage screwball comedies, the supporting players gleefully threaten to steal scenes from the stars. Grade: B

"Friends With Benefits" (R) is now playing at area theaters.