'Friends With Benefits': The Anti-Romantic Comedy
Call it a no-mantic comedy: in order to encapsulate a new generation's sexual tendencies and norms, "Friends With Benefits" seeks to first assault and destroy years of Hollywood paint-by-numbers love stories.
In many places, its prosecution is not subtle -- stars Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake directly assail the unreachable fairytales of the big screen, even scoffing at a cheesy fake romcom 'starring' Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. But the film doesn't shoot for gentle, and the message, it goes without saying, is loud and clear.
"Part of what we wanted to do, we felt like romantic comedies, hadn't caught up, weren't reflecting our straight single girlfriends," co-writer Keith Merryman told The Huffington Post at the film's big New York premiere on Monday. And so, he and partner David A. Newman set out to create a dynamic that sought out carnal happy endings over emotional, and designed characters so psychologically damaged that they didn't fear physical connection, but instead the intimate connection that is so often attached.
"We wanted to write an R-rated anti-romantic comedy," David A. Newman, the film's other original writer, said. "Sort of like the death of romance in the age of hookups and that became our driving principle. Instead of having them kiss and cut to the next morning, we get the comedy there."
Merryman stressed his excitement at having Timberlake and Kunis bring his story to life, offering that the pair "embody their generation" of late night text messages and commitment-free sex, and lent a bit of reality and grounding to their anti-cliche, sex-only manifesto. Even if Timberlake is just about his generation's most famous artist/performer/celebrity.
"What we love about Justin is that he's this huge icon, he's this huge superstar," he said. "But he'll take the piss out of himself, he's self-deprecating. There's certain people at that level who would never be funny about themselves."
Newman showered his star with similar praise.
"He's this huge international superstar but there's something about hm that feels like every guy," Newman said. "Guys love him and want to be his friend, girls want to be with him."
Timberlake certainly owns this moment in time: his "SNL" skits with Andy Samberg (who makes a cameo in this film) are some of the most successful viral videos in history; he starred in "The Social Network," the telling of the story behind the greatest revolution in communications in decades; and he can admit to youthful mistakes such as sporting frosted tips.
All typical 21st century Generation Y-defining accomplishments.
Kunis, gorgeous as she is, embodies a new generation of women stars, as she features in a beloved raunchy cartoon in "Family Guy" and boasts of her massive geek chicness, including an abiding love of Star Trek.
Once director Will Gluck signed onto the film, he went right after casting duo, and then, went about making sure the two got to revamp it with their own representative visions.
"Once they stupidly said yes, we agreed to redo it in their own voices," Gluck explained. "So we developed it and workshopped it all together, us three, so by the time we were shooting, it was in their voices."
That meant snappy, sarcastic interplay that sounds like a horny, 21st century Humphrey Bogart noir film. Of course, Bogart fell in love the traditional way in his black and white classics -- after all, he did star in the greatest on screen romance ever, "Casablanca" -- with just passionate kisses to convey his affection. Which isn't what happens here.
Indeed, aside from the obvious, verbal deprecation of the stodgy genre, there is a stark difference in the development of the relationship: instead of falling in love slowly on sweet dates or being friends with strictly no benefits, Timberlake and Kunis spend much of the first half of the film doing the exact opposite: discovering each other in bed, through multiple big set pieces that offer two beautiful people having wildly un-treacly sex that involves sneezes, socks and slurps.
As Gluck said, when you're working with two of the most beautiful people in the world, it's silly to ignore the obvious, which actually lends itself to the updated issue at hand.
"In this movie, the two characters, Justin and Mila, have no trouble getting a date," he admitted. "It's not one of those movies where you have, 'Oh my god, how is Justin going to get a date? Wah!' So, when you have those type of characters, to me it really frees you up to say, who do you really like in life?... Just cause you're pretty doesn't mean your life is awesome."
There's also the difference in the film's depiction of women: unlike the classic romantic woman in distress character or 90s-perfected "funny because she's fumbling" leading lady, Kunis offers her own smart brand of comedy to the film, making her part of a larger movement this summer to prove that women, indeed, can be funny on their own merits.
"Women are so much more funny and complicated and much smarter than dudes, that as a writer and a director, I want to see a woman be funny, because to me, it comes from a different place," Gluck said. Consider that another battlefront in the war on romantic comedies.
Still, all of the film's twisted conventions, from the literal takedown of predecessors to the sex to the new age interplay, in the end, don't work to actually take away from the idea of love; that's still the movie's north star. In fact, as Newman explained, those reversals offer a new level of intimacy that one doesn't often see on film.
"What I thought was interesting about the friends with benefits relationship, is he can open up to her in a way that he never would with a woman that he wanted to have a relationship with," the writer said. "There's a big set piece where he takes her home to meet his family because he thinks of her as his friend. He never would bring a girl that he was really into. There's a whole other level of intimacy."
Gluck agreed, saying that ultimately, they're trying to capture a new reality of relationships, not reject the entire premise of true love.
"We wanted to make a real movie about real people, and that allows us to talk real frankly about sex. A big chunk of this movie is that you're having sex with your friend and you don't have to worry about what you say, so a pandora's box is open."
"Friends With Benefits" hits theaters on Friday.