3 stars (out of five)
Friends with Benefits is a romantic comedy struggling very hard to be hip. The sex talk is franker than in most rom-coms, there's a lot of skin in the sex scenes (most of it is Justin Timberlake's back and bottom as he sprawls over Mila Kunis, using his backside to block her front side from viewers), and the leads make knowing jokes about rom-com conventions. There's even a rom-com within the rom-com, starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones.
Posturing aside, the Will Gluck (Easy A) film is a formulaic romantic comedy, but being formulaic isn't necessarily a bad thing. Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are likable actors, the banter between them is enjoyable and they look nice undressed. Plus, Woody Harrelson appears in a supporting role and it's always good to see Woody, especially when he's playing an upbeat character.
The premise: Can two people have a successful ongoing sexual relationship without becoming lovers? Well of course they can't, but this is the second movie this year (No Strings Attached was the other one) to pose the question.
No plot description here. There's no need. No need for character names either. Suffice to say that the non-couple couple spends time in New York City for a while, then they go to Los Angeles, then back to New York. Patricia Clarkson turns up as the inconsiderate free-spirit mother of one of the leads. The family of the other lead includes protective sister Jenna Elfman and poppa Richard Jenkins, who suffers from Hollywood Alzheimer's disease, which insures lucid moments whenever dramatically required. Nolan Gould, who plays young Luke on Modern Family, is also part of the clan. I get a kick out of that kid.
The most fun supporting player by far is Woody Harrelson, who plays a confident, gung-ho and extremely bawdy co-worker of Justin Timberlake. He's one of those guys who demands attention the second he strides into a room, talking too loud as he flings opinions and sexual one-liners in all directions. The twist is that this time the character is gay, and the twist worked for me. Woody clearly relished the chance to be boisterous and sorta shocking, and when Woody's having fun, it's hard not to have fun along with him.
Incidentally, any doubt about the movie's failure to achieve hipness is removed by its two - two! - flash mob scenes. I'm no expert on pop culture sensations, but I know this: When anything trendy turns up in TV commercials, its moment has officially passed, and there's a flash mob-based ad for some mobile device that's running on television about every 20 minutes right now.
So there you go. Friends with Benefits. Hip? No, but Timberlake and Kunis do a good job with an old routine, and Woody keeps the proceedings lively. As rom-coms go, you could do a lot worse than this.