Friends with Benefits

The surprisingly clever and enjoyable “Friends with Benefits” was hampered this year by coming out five months after the much worse reviewed “No Strings Attached.” Who really wanted to see another lame casual sex movie with the OTHER girl from “Black Swan?”

Believe it or not, Mila Kunis would here give Natalie Portman a run for her money as America’s sweetheart. Her character Jamie is not just quick witted and tough but seems free of the hang-ups of the inherently cute and mildly flawed leading lady of most romantic comedies.

There’s a scene early on where Kunis meets her equally charming costar Justin Timberlake, and he catches her walking on the baggage carousel at the airport. What I like is that she doesn’t double take or make an awkward, embarrassed face and rather seems to shrug it off as a kind of funny circumstance.

The whole film is self aware in that way. It’s the kind that just rips on other rom-coms and how silly they all are and winks at the camera with how self-aware it is before totally not innovating in the third act. Oh well, what can you do?

The answer of course is to be silly about it. Kunis and Timberlake have magnificent chemistry and don’t seem to take a minute of their somewhat clichéd screenplay too seriously. They show such stability and comfort in their friendly relationship that they stave off the movie’s urge to rush into the sappy will they/won’t they ending.

Both Kunis and Timberlake are sexy, funny and never intentionally embarrass themselves for a dumb laugh. They rattle off dialogue and the cross cutting can be a headache, but rather than make obscure pop culture references at every turn they seem to have down the inside jokes of a naturally compatible pair of friends.

“Friends with Benefits” is also the sort of movie that makes you blurt out, “What the hell is Woody Harrelson doing in this movie?” I also exclaimed at the appearance of Nolan Gould from “Modern Family,” but the real standout is the completely irreverent Patricia Clarkson. This disturbingly sex driven mother could’ve been a nightmare in another actress’s hands.

Now you’re asking, “So Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are actually funny and likeable AND they take their clothes off?” Yes, who knew?

3 ½ stars

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