Nathan & Tyler met at a halfway-decent temp gig and ended up talking about movies on the train, which is damn unusual behavior for anybody familiar with temp gigs or the Chicago Transit Authority. Cineastes both, they here launch FR’s newest feature. (Due to time constraints and travel, this installment will rely on the comment section more than usual.)
Nathan: The New 400 Theatre in Rogers Park is a four screen theatre showing wide release pictures. We chose to see Friends With Benefits mainly because we missed the showing for Captain America. They also had Bad Teacher and Harry Potter 7, Part 2, neither of which were viable options for us.
Inside the small lobby were all the standard movie advertisements lining the walls and a small concession stand. I bought my matinee price ticket for $5 (which is an awesome deal in Chicago). As I passed the concession stand, I was asked if I wanted anything to eat during the movie. Nope. I proceeded directly to the theatre where the movie had just started. Tyler came after me because he had to smoke a cigarette. He didn’t miss much other than cameo appearances from Emma Stone and Andy Samberg. The picture was in focus and framed right, which is a true blessing for any real movie lover. Too often projectionists have no idea how to frame the picture, leaving the edges of the frame hovering eerily in the curtains. The seats were as comfortable as can be expected from a non-stadium arrangement and the theatre room itself was pretty small. The only problem was with the sound, which had a tinny quality to it. This could have been a major distraction with an action movie like Captain America, but a romantic comedy starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis suffered little.
Tyler: I’m a big fan of the New 400. Back in 2005, during its previous incarnation as Busted Cheap Flicks In Rogers Park, I finagled myself a double-feature of A History Of Violence and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. It’s been sold and rehabbed since, and it only became a better theatre. As Nathan noted, the framing is immaculate; the sound is more than fine, as well, especially if you don’t care whether you’re getting blasted by THX AMC Wehrenberg SpeakerSystem 6000. Their tickets are five bucks before six PM, their popcorn is underbuttered (thank God) and generously portioned, and they have a full bar.
Nathan: When I think of Friends With Benefits, the word “crass” keeps popping into my mind. It can be applied to the film in more ways than one, some of those ways being commendable and others not so much.
FWB has a positive crassness in the way that it handles sexuality. By setting up a premise in which the two partners are not interested in romance or even friendship, the film is able to treat sexuality with a sense of concrete physicality. This is a movie that truthfully recognizes how difficult it can be to pee when you have an erection. And it has enough charm to be funny about it. For all the star power and sexiness of the film’s leads, FWB doesn’t glamorize sex the way that most Hollywood movies do. And by taking the sheen off the standard sex scenes, FWB turns out to be far sexier than those films that keep it hot and heavy. We get the sense that the relationship depicted in the film, however ridiculous it may be, is somehow possible in our own world.
In other areas FWB is crass; I mean really, truly crass, as in the way that almost every generic romantic comedy has to be in order to smooth it over for the average viewer. I can’t imagine either Timberlake or Kunis signing on to anything truly dangerous, so FWB has to hit all the standard plot points and narrative devices. It tries to be hip in its approach by openly poking fun of some of the lamest conventions in romantic comedy in a few early scenes, but it the movie betrays itself by employing the exact same conventions but in subtler, hipper ways.
Tyler: I had far more fun watching Friends With Benefits than I ever imagined possible. It is a crap Hollywood romantic comedy, the kind that’s existed as long as cinema, and it is full of great actors giving lean dialogue and plot their best attempt at credible gravitas.
FWB is rated R, though, and it is in that stylistic choice that the movie’s strengths are found. To allow a major vehicle featuring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis to exclude any under-17 audience without guardianship (or, at least, any official profit from that audience) is to flush easy money down the drain. Instead, the smart-ass cast gets to do a little riffing, clearly amused at their own naughtiness. The sex scenes aren’t staged with any deftness, but the talk is frank and smart, the stuff you might find in a good Kevin Smith film.
There are plenty of missteps, but few are major. Woody Harrelson skirts a very fine line as an Out-‘n-Proud Real MAN!, but Woody Harrelson is extremely funny, so he mostly manages to get away with it. The plotting is by-the-numbers, straight three-act, which is what you want from any studio picture (keep an eye out for that flash mob!), but the story manages at least two mild surprises along the way, which is three more than most films released to theaters so far this year. It’s a fine little fable, full of the usual nonsense about how People Just Can’t Handle Themselves When It Comes To Sex, but it’s also just a little bit wiser than you’d think.
Plus, Kunis and Timberlake. Is there anything these fuckers cannot do? We’ve come a long way from Jackie and “God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You.”