Dear Friends With Benefits,
I don’t often use other people’s words to express my own opinion. Sure, there is the old adage about how someone has already said what you mean to say better and with more brevity, but I enjoy cutting into the meat of a film to find the specific, central reasons for its failure or success. In your case, though, there is a quote that perfectly encapsulates both your sole redeeming quality as a film, and your great, insufferable failure.
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. – Friedrich Nietzche
Oh yes, Friends With Benefits, if ever there was a movie deserving of that line, it is you. You were a fierce, determined study in mediocrity that over time became spiced by the utter failure of postmodern ambition. Your actors, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, could have coasted on the charm of their smiles and histories, but your script actually torpedoes that advantage by giving them nothing more than self referential cliches to buoy their characters.
On the surface you seem to be trying only to tell a romantic tale that reflects our cynical, modern era. Two high-powered and attractive professionals, Dylan and Jamie, who have just recently left serious relationships, meet and kindle a friendship together based on their shared enjoyment of… well, who knows. Frankly, you do a very poor job of explaining the initial draw or enduring reasons behind the friendship between these two.
But that is not important. After all, we’ve been asked to accept much more outlandish things in films before as a means of getting us to the real heart of the story. Your heart, for instance, involves these two attractive friends deciding to enter into a carnal relationship with all the benefits of sex and none of the usual monogamous strings attached. They decide to do this after a night of watching romantic comedies, which gets them talking about the tropes associated with these kinds of films. Timberlake and Kunis execute this scene with the utmost awkwardness, woodenness, and self-consciousness. It feels as though they were aware that by badmouthing those films they were badmouthing their own by proxy, and never got comfortable with it. Or maybe they just didn’t feel like trying that hard at acting the day that scene was shot.
At the midpoint of your run time, you completely reverse this half-heartedly transgressive course, turning yourself from a commentary on the inane genetics of romantic comedies to a full-throated love song to the same. I know you probably saw this, on a script level, as a kind of intense commentary on modern cynicism towards romantic love. You probably thought that having two characters reject the tropes of a romantic comedy until they suddenly find themselves acting out those same cliches in their own lives was clever. Unfortunately, you failed to properly modulate the transition, and so instead of being a subtle or nuanced postmodern shift of perspective the whole affair comes off as simple lazy storytelling.
For instance, Kunis’ Jamie has a mother who is an eternal hippie and who doesn’t know who the father of her daughter is. This has led to Jamie cultivating and subsequently repressing a kind of princess fantasy. She wants a man to come and rescue her, but refuses to admit it. Timberlake’s Dylan, meanwhile, has a father who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and whose slow deterioration has somehow made Dylan reject intimacy. These are well-worn tropes that you could have given a simple twist to create the illusion of uniqueness. Instead, you toss them in with a wink but play them saccrine-straight, which does not work at all.
And this, of course, brings us to the quote. He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. You are a film that tries to take on and comment upon the tropes of a cliched romantic comedy, and yet through your struggles becomes a cliched romantic comedy, only worse because instead of simply admitting to and accepting it, you made a halfhearted effort at denying that lineage.
As such, you not only have to bear the cross of your cliches, but also the scars you acquired trying to fight them. This makes you lame, limping, ugly, and ultimately worthless.
We are not friends,
Brian J. Roan