From Shakespeare and Austen through Tracy and Hepburn, when it comes to romantic comedies, chemistry is king. It’s one reason the rom-com has long seemed like the toughest code for Hollywood to crack.
But never underestimate the power of snappy, rapid-fire banter, the paving stones of the Hollywood road to romance.
That’s another way of saying “Friends With Benefits,” the R-rated romantic delight of the summer, had me the moment Mila Kunis’ character glances a poster to “The Ugly Truth” and utters this immortal line.
“Shut UP Katherine Heigl, you stupid liar!”
“Friends” pairs up Kunis, as Jamie, a corporate recruiter (“head hunter”) and Justin Timberlake as Dylan, an editor she hunts, gets hired, befriends and eventually tumbles into bed with — a friendship with sexual benefits. Yeah, it’s like “No Strings Attached.” Only better. Snappier.
The not-quite-lovers “Meet cute,” in the classic Hollywood style.
“I’m from LA,” Dylan chirps, in New York to see if this job at GQ Magazine would be a good fit. “I like my open spaces.”
“What are you,” Jamie shoots back, “a gazelle? You LA folk are so…cute.”
Will “Easy A” Gluck’s movie — script by Gluck, David A. Newman and Keith Merryman — is all about the New York/LA conflict. Everybody in NYC yanks poor Dylan’s chain — sarcastic, biting, fake-threatening him. There’s Woody Harrelson, cast against type as the butch yet over-the-top gay sports editor, and in a hilarious cameo, gonzo snowboarder Shaun White, scaring the bejeezus out of the over-matched Dylan. No wonder he clings to Jamie, his first friend in New York. She’s into weepy romantic comedies, which they watch together.
“Why don’t they ever make a movie about what happens after the kiss?”
“It’s called porn.”
Being young and good-looking and so married to their jobs and so frequently burned by other relationships, naturally they tempt fate by trying the sex-with0ut-complications thing. “Two people should be able to have sex the way they play tennis.”
Set the ground rules — no emotions, “just sex,” and “whatever happens, we stay friends.”
Take an oath on that. On a Bible. “I have an ap for that. Swear on your Bible ap, ‘No relationship!’”
And see how it all works out.
Gluck knocks us on our heels with the film’s opening scene — dueling breakups (Andy Samberg is the guy doing Jamie wrong, Emma Stone of “Easy A” shrieks her way out of an affair with Dylan. Richard Jenkins, Patricia Clarkson and Jenna Elfman show up in tiny but funny roles as relatives.
And the stars pick it up from there. Kunis already has sitcom-ready timing, and the editing makes the zingers just zing by. He leaves his socks on during sex — “I can work with that.” But this sex-not-love thing “Seems a little college-y,” to her.
“I could sing a little Third Eye Blind,” he fires back. Then Timberlake croons a little “Closing Time.” By Semi-sonic.
They finish each other’s sentences and read each other like books — comic books.
“Every time you curse, you blink. It’s as if you body is rejecting the word.”
Will they find each other cute and promising enough to move beyond practicing mating to mating? What do you think? Yeah, we all know the formula. But when it works and the chemistry is just right, we love seeing exactly what we expect and hope for. With “Friends With Benefits” after “Easy A,” Gluck is now two-for-two. Hollywood could have its new romantic comedy king, just as long as he avoids the charms of…Katherine Heigl.
MPAA Rating:: R for sexual content and language.
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins