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When the trailers for Friends with Benefits started airing I assumed they were some kind of clever post-home video viral campaign for Black Swan. I know I’m not the only one that was confused, but for those of you that might not have seen Black Swan Darren Aronofsky’s ballet nightmare Natalie Portman plays a ballerina who, among other things, becomes convinced Mila Kunis is an evil doppelganger trying to steal her top roll in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Portman’s Back Swan follow up was an Ivan Reitman romantic comedy called No Strings Attached, staring her and Ashton Kutcher as friends that start having sex for fun with no emotional strings attached. Disappointing, but an understandable part of the average, award winning Hollywood star’s ‘one for them, one for me’ approach to stardom. No Strings Attached was released in late January, and was in theaters at the same time as Black Swan, which was a surprise hit. The following spring the first trailers for Mila Kunis’ Black Swan follow-up started airing, around the same time Black Swan Blu-ray/DVD release ads started airing. The movie was called Friends with Benefits, and Kunis co-starred with Justin Timberlake as friends…that start having sex…for fun…with no emotional strings attached. Was this for real? Were the stars of a popular, award winning doppelganger themed film really staring in dueling ‘sex buddy’ movies? I actually had a review copy of No Strings Attached, but never found the time (or will) to review it, so I’m unable to directly compare the two plots beyond descriptions, but can note that Rietman’s film was

originally titled Friends with Benefits

, which means that the two screenplays likely featured the

same title

, and that the subject had to come up at some point on the set of Black Swan.

Friends with Benefits
This fun fact is largely where my interest in this movie begins and ends. I never got around to seeing director Will Gluck’s Easy A (which I hear great things about), so I didn’t have a lot of buzz going for his next film. He’s clearly a capable director, has a good sense of pacing, and can do bubbly without going overboard into mawkish. Perhaps most importantly, I really like the two leads, and I really like them together. They’ve got huge chemistry brewing between them (it takes a few minutes, admittedly, you just wait for it), they’re given genuinely funny stuff to talk about, and it’s hard to root against their budding relationship. Justin Timberlake has surpassed the point of pleasant surprise, and I now tend to expect the best from him. I was afraid this character was going to be a sort of softened version of Sean Parker, but he’s genuinely charming and quite good with sarcasm. Mila Kunis is a constant favourite, but she more or less perfected this kind of role with Forgetting Sarah Marshal, and I’d prefer to see her moving on to more difficult, Black Swan-ish roles for longer periods before resting on her laurels. The supporting roles are nicely filled for the most part, too. Jenna Elfman and Richard Jenkins are so dramatically impressive as Timberlake’s sister and Alzheimer’s stricken father (respectively) they rise the second half of the film beyond its hackneyed momentum, but this might mark the exact moment I decided I’m done with Woody Harlson’s post- Cheers shtick.

My major problem with Friends with Benefits is that it never really delivers on its anti-rom-com premise. The second half of the film is more or less the exact thing the movie pretends to be reacting to. The characters clearly know the rules of living in a movie, and there’s plenty of meta-discussion, but they all too quickly forget, and go back to falling in love against the odds. The filmmakers could convince me this itself was part of the concept, but surface merits alone aren’t convincing me. Friends with Benefits isn’t among the least effective by-the-numbers rom-com I’ve ever seen. Timberlake and Kunis’ chemistry goes a long way, and there’s some real emotional heft in the third act, but the dropped concept is really frustrating. Someday, someone will make an effective, touching, and genuinely funny anti-rom-com, but today is not that day. I suppose I’ll just have to rewatch Takashi Miike’s Audition for a terrifyingly ironic take on the genre until then. Back on the plus side – the frank discussion during sex joke is pretty funny (though these scenes drone on a few minutes too long), there are some clever incidental gags (the Bible app problems, Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice playing on the TV without anyone talking about it), and I’m happy that Gluck earns his R-rating with plenty of naughty language, and just-short-of-full-frontal sex (sorry fellahs, no Kunis nipples, and sorry ladies, no Timberlake penis).

Friends with Benefits

Video


Friends with Benefits looks like just about every other modern mainstream comedy you’ve seen over the last five or six years. It’s unrealistic, but not bizarrely colourful, and the vibrant hues are softly blended with just enough of a hard edge to keep things sharp. This 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is about as clean and clear as we could expect. The photography is best when it’s exploring the New York City nightlife, complete with rich blacks, and cool palettes spiked with warm highlights and poppy neon. The overall black levels absorb a bit of green, and some of the details are a bit hard to discern in the darkest sequences, but contrast levels are sharp without hardening the edges. Daylight scenes are a little blown-out, seemingly on purpose, and feature rich, consistent colours (the trees and grass are ungodly green). Detail levels aren’t excessively fine in close-up, though the helicopter shots of Los Angeles are kind of breathtaking in their minuscule, complex elements. On the other hand, some of the daylight helicopter shots of New York City are a little rough and edge-haloy.

Friends with Benefits

Audio


There’s not a lot to say about this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 release outside of the fact that it gets the job done. There’s not a lot of flair here, but this is balanced by the fact that there aren’t any problems either, and the fact that there’s no need for this particular film to be aurally aggressive. Again, the New York City nightlife is the consistent highlight, mostly because of the general ambience that fills the streets. There are also two flash mob scenes that feature nicely spread pop music that has strong rear channels presence. Even here, though, the hustle and bustle of pedestrians and traffic is often muted in favour of dialogue. That’s all I have to say about that.

Extras


Extra features begin with an audio commentary featuring director Will Gluck, and actors Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. This is a definitively playful track, where the behind the scenes anecdotes are told with a wink and a nod by three participants that are clearly having a good time. Listeners looking for really hard facts might find themselves annoyed by unrelated tangents, but I think I laughed more at the candid banter than I did at the film proper. Besides the fun stuff the participants do a good job discussing deleted scenes, many of which are not available on the disc, and which they mention won’t be available on the disc. This is augmented with an optional pop-up trivia track, which based on my sampling covers much of the same ground as the commentary, minus the interactions, with a lot more technical focus.

Next up is a series of ten deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary from Gluck (8:50, HD). These basically consist of one-off jokes that aren’t needed. The disc also features an outtake/blooper reel (6:40, HD), a ad-cum-EPK that focuses mostly on the challenge of filming on the streets of NYC and LA called On Set with FWB (5:40, HD), a look behind the scenes of the flash mob scene called In a Flash: Choreographing a Mob (5:50, HD), and trailers for other Sony Blu-ray releases.

Friends with Benefits

Overall


This whole review comes down to this: if you suspect you may like Friends with Benefits based on the trailer, you probably will. And if you don’t suspect you’ll like it, but know someone that wants to see it, it’s good enough that you won’t despise the experience. As a basic, workaday rom-com it works, but as a post-modern commentary on workaday rom-coms it’s a disappointment. The Blu-ray looks and sounds fine, and features a fun commentary track with the director and stars.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray ray quality.


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