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Dark of the Matinée: 21st Century F*ck // Friends With Benefits

Mila Kunis, a young white woman, and Justin Timberlake, a young white man, sitting on a green couch talking and drinking beer out of bottles in the movie Friends with Benefits
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.

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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I hate leaving comments that

I hate leaving comments that are no more eloquent than a simple "I LOVE THIS!" but really, I LOVE THIS! I do. It's so much fun to read such unabashed hate for a movie seemingly so gimmicky. Great + funny read. Thank you.

You forgot my favorite sexism

You forgot my favorite sexism - a woman being on top during sex is emasculating. I've informed my male-identified partner, he's obviously ignorant of the fact as this is our mutual favorite position.

I have a soft spot for romantic comedies even though I come out of every one having some objections that sound like some of your above objections, and I especially enjoy romantic stories of couples that were friends who later discover deeper connections than they previously guessed. So, I hadn't been to the movies in a year or so and had a rare free weekday afternoon to spend and I used it going to this movie. Yes, I cringed at a female character so busy proving she's awesome by being as anti-female as possible (pussy? as an insult? seriously?) but in the end what made me cringe more was the shallowness. This guy has a close, meaningful family life back on the other coast (I was happy to see that portrayed, that's rare, especially with a single mom involved) that means a great deal to him and that family is needing him but he takes off for New York to work for GQ and leaves them. Okay, I can see a young adult doing that, feeling like they just have to go to New York and see what they are made of. But then he goes home and he takes his best friend and you see his best friend get it, get how much his dad means to him, how lucky he is to have a great family and you think 'here's where they are going to realize together that there are much richer, more important things in life than having a "cool" job in New York City, here's where they fall in love because they realize that together.' When the woman (Jaimie) tells him fuck what other people think when his dad does things in public that others find odd, that what matters is his amazing relationship with his dad and his dad knowing that his son still needs and respects him I had a moment of hope for some real depth entering the film. But instead he says he doesn't want to talk about such things and it turns into a cutesy bit about her being cooler and tougher than him again when she jumps off the sign and he "is a pussy" and can get himself to jump down and ends up on the news being rescued. I don't agree that its fair to say the treatment of Alzheimer's was tokenized - we can't show this disease as a part of a family's life without it being a feature piece on it and what happens to a family? I think they did a good job of bringing a heavy issue into a light movie in a way that normalized it, that made it something we acknowledge as part of our lives without making a documentary only a small portion of the population will watch. They didn't make it seem easy or any less emotionally hard than it is, they just showed it happening to an otherwise privileged family and the son not having the courage to stay put and deal with it - both being real and common - it effecting privileged families and the men of the family running off because they can't emotionally deal and leaving the women of the family as the caretakers. My bigger objection was the final conclusion - that the shiny New York hot shot job life somehow had more to offer than the rare and rich gift of a deeply connected and loving family living in a place you also love. That its got to be about glitz and power and fame or it has no real value. That, for me, was the biggest tragedy of the film.

And yes, the fact that the film was just a big ad for New York City and GQ was obnoxious, but that's all mainstream television and movies these days, avoid all of it if you don't want to be able to clearly tell the entertainment has been made as an ad revenue opportunity more than as art. I don't disagree, I just don't think it was one of the more interesting problems with the film.

Interesting review, I laughed

Interesting review, I laughed quite a few times! It sounds like one of those movies that tries way to hard to be current and self-aware. That said, I also have a soft spot for *some* rom-coms and may actually see this one. There are clearly some problematic aspects (as you pointed out), but as far as rom-coms go, it doesn't look half as insulting as other similar movies out there (ex:Just Go With It). I appreciated that the gay sidekick wasn't made into too much of a stereotype (at least in the trailer), for example. (Although now that I think of it, it'd definitely be nice to see more queers as main characters rather than the sidekicks, but that's a topic for a whole other post).

On an unrelated note... am I the only one who thinks it's a bit cliche that 99% of mainstream (and even most indie) romcoms an dramas have to take place in NYC or LA by default? I mean no disrespect to either city, but seriously, how about some more diverse geographical representation? Is it so impossible to imagine that hip, young people can have sex/drama/romantic misadventures outside of a big city?

Yes

Thank you, for that comment about geography. It's like the rest of the country just doesn't exist, and the US is actually comprised of New York, over here on the right, and Los Angeles, over here on the left. The other states just...don't exist. That's so strange to me.

The rest of the country? what

The rest of the country? what about the rest of the world?

So...

I loved this review. I love your writing style. But...

That "girl" who says "rockin" in the Expedia commercials is a 42 year old woman named Pauley Perrette. Lets not infantilize her with "girl." She's a woman.

She plays Abby on NCIS. I probably wouldn't watch that show if her character wasn't in it. Abby's awesome.

To explain to you why I'm such a huge fan of hers that I had to comment on it, let me just copypasta this 'graph from her IMDB.

"An ardent social and civil activist, Pauley is involved in many charitable organizations that work on behalf of animal rescue, civil and LGBT rights. She is on the board of Project Angel Food, and supports Habitat for Humanity, NoH8, PATH (People Assisting The Homeless), EQCA (Equality California), AIDS Walk LA, The Humane Society, AIDS Task Force, NOH8 Campaign, Los Angeles Zoo, Hope Gardens, Union Rescue Mission, DonorsChoose.org, APLA (AIDS Project Los Angeles), The Amanda Foundation, American Red Cross, Out of the Closet, Top Cops, 5p21 (AIDS Clinic), Strike Out AIDS, Petfinder.com, Hollywood Homeless Lunch, Campaign for Care and Save the Children. Pauley is also an active congregant of the legendary social and civilly active Hollywood United Methodist Church."

Anyway, I really enjoyed this critique. I just thought I'd provide some unsolicited information.

More Unsolicited Information

I hear you, Abby's ace.Also under the heading of Unsolicited Information is that maybe 'With friends like you,who needs friends?' might be a reference to the same line in Rushmore (Max's 'little brother' Dirk Calloway uses it).Just a thought, and it fits in with the heavy 90s pop-culture back referencing.Even so, I haven't seen this particular cinematic gem,so I could be way off...

Agree but its the movies

Although these points for the most part are very valid, it is the movies and without the clichés and influence of the media the movie would not be the least bit successful. No one is interested in seeing a movie about what happens in everyday life. Additionally as much as we want society to be attracted to different things other than images from the media, these changes would take years and years to occur. Furthermore, the first point that was made in this review was about how people would like to see friends with benefits actually occur, but this movie is not about that. It proves that this “perfect” situation is impossible, because there are always feelings. So no, this movie does not present society with this situation to be possible, instead it emphasizes how impossible it is.