When it comes to mainstream romantic comedies, I break them down into either Katharine Hepburns or Katherine Heigls. In a Hepburn, the woman is strong, whip-smart and can hold her own. In a Heigl, she’s neurotic, officious and somehow a failure because she’s still single. Bringing Up Baby? All night long. 27 Dresses? I’d rather clean my bathroom. Hell, I’d rather clean your bathroom.
I usually stay away from the recent rom-coms because they all seem to be Heigls. (The sole exception being When Harry Met Sally, because it was written by the amazing Nora Ephron, and it’s more classic than modern at this point.) Plus, I don’t really care about the mating rituals of straight people.
But when I saw Friends with Benefits, which opens today, I was surprised to find that I liked it. I liked it so much, it made me wish we had a movie like this of our own — something big-budget, young, modern, breezy and quippy. (Why do we never do quippy? We’ve done campy – D.E.B.S. and But I’m a Cheerleader – but quippy, not so much.)
Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) make contact after she (a headhunter) brings him, (an art director) from L.A. to New York for a job at GQ. After a meet cute at the airport, where Jamie gets stuck walking on a moving baggage carousel, they soon become friends, bonding over similar dating failures.
Jamie and Dylan drink beer and do lunch. They chest bump and watch movies. They don’t sext, they text. And when they decide to add sex to the mix, because neither of them are dating, it’s sealed with a conscious vow to keep it real over an iPad Bible app. There is no falling into bed after drinking too much, followed by an awkward, angsty morning-after. Afterward, Jamie and Dylan are still friends. In fact, they’re even better friends.
I’d love to see that in a lesbian romantic comedy. Replace Timberlake with any actress that looks good sitting next to Mila Kunis and now we’re talking. Given the chemistry Mila and Natalie Portman showed in Black Swan, maybe there’s a way to merge Friends with its sister, No Strings Attached, and create something for us.
That said, Friends with Benefits is funny and fun to watch because it’s lacking the trope I dislike about previous rom-coms: The woman is amusing because she’s a mess, but the man is funny because, well, he’s funny.
Jamie has the same sense of humor as Dylan. She gets in as many zingers and comebacks as he does. She’s successful, she’s not an emotional eater and she’s a former tuba player. Considering four men (Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Harley Peyton and Will Gluck, who also directed) wrote the script, it was a nice surprise to find Jamie written as Dylan’s equal. And as played by Kunis, who proved her comedy chops on That ’70s Show, Jamie is just as good at throwing a look as she is at throwing a bon mot.
The movie includes an integrated gag that gooses its own genre by using a pointedly hilarious movie-within-a-movie “starring” Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. As they watch it, Jamie and Dylan mock it’s formulaic emotional arc: The required meet cute, the low point, the cloying speech about each other’s adorable flaws, the lame music cues — oh and Grand Central Station looks suspiciously like Burbank.
In my imaginary lesbian rom-com, we would show our characters watching a bad lesbian relationship movie — one where someone sleeps with a man, looks pensively at the sea for a solid 20 minutes and then kills themselves. And the women’s bar looks suspiciously like the director’s basement. Can we do that?
Woody Harrelson plays the gay sports editor at GQ with glee (not Glee). He’s a guy’s guy who unapologetically loves other guys. Yes, he talks about trolling for d–k way too much, but watching Woody Harrelson talk about anything is always a good time. In my lesbian version, Jane Lynch or Melissa McCarthy could handily fill the role of the inappropriate, sex-positive force of nature with no filter. Or just keep Woody. I’m OK with that, too.
Richard Jenkins slows the comedy pace as Dylan’s dad, who’s starting to show signs of Alzheimer’s. His new habit of eschewing pants doesn’t play as comical, so much as it does sad. And, in a moment of clarity, he reveals that the love of his life was not Dylan’s mother. Dylan takes the news well, only because it’s meant as a cautionary tale about not letting your great love slip away.
The always great Patricia Clarkson plays Jamie’s kooky, unreliable hippie mother with enough warmth, you forgive her her constant neglect, including bailing on their mother-daughter weekend at the last minute. Toward the end of the film, she warns Jamie about the pitfalls of waiting for Prince Charming, telling her simply to be the hero of her own story. Clarkson’s performance is stellar, never quite dipping into the saccharine, nor the silly.
Other plot points dovetail perfectly into my lesbian version: Dylan is constantly defending his obsession with Harry Potter. (I’m looking at you, Heather Hogan.) Jamie has an appropriately androgynous name. (Hard to buy someone named “Tiffany” trading barbs or kicking a guy’s ass at Wii.)
Friends with Benefits goes When Harry Met Sally one better. Instead of asking whether men and women can be just friends, it assumes they can these days. The question in 2011 is: Can friends have sex and not fall in love, or worse, screw up the friendship? Well, sh-t howdy, lesbians have been asking ourselves that for decades.