I’m going to try my best to get through this with review without any comparisons to this year’s other f**kbuddy romantic comedy, No Strings Attached. After all, the two are completely different, right? Although both involve guy/girl friends who sleep together to avoid emotional intimacy only to eventually fall in love, one stars that actress from Black Swan and the other stars a That ’70s Show alum. Er, wait – that’s both again. Never mind. Compare away!
No Strings Attached (“NSA”) has a slight edge on Friends with Benefits (“FWB”), due to reasons that might just help explain my issues with FWB. Let’s break it down by category.
NSA was written by a woman and had a fairly strong female perspective on the subject. Natalie Portman’s doctor character initiated the whole f**kbuddy idea because she works long hours and doesn’t have time to participate in an active, give-and-take relationship. But, you know, she still has needs. I buy that premise much more than the one in FWB, where Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake’s characters decide to sleep together simply because they’re in a movie called Friends with Benefits. Edge: NSA.
FWB smartly casts two young actors in their prime, who still haven’t reached their full potential. Kunis and Timberlake share a comfortable, talkative chemistry, and prove fetching together. That’s a good thing because a significant chunk of the movie’s running time features the two in bed, writhing over, under, on, and around each other. Portman is an Oscar winner, sure, but Ashton Kutcher should be nobody’s first choice for the lead. Still, his NSA character is not all that demanding to play and clearly within his wheelhouse, so Kutcher holds his own. Kunis is a gifted comedienne, more naturally so than Portman, and she elevates the material through her performance, even though her character is underwritten. Timberlake’s character is even more of a blank slate. I love JT as much as any straight man should, but he fares best when goofing off on screen. He hasn’t developed the skills yet to make something out of a nothing character. Edge: Tie.
FWB certainly offers more laughs than NSA. The script is chock full of witty, pop culture-based one-liners, and there is a nifty little anti-establishment streak that runs through it. You can just hear the writers admiring their own cojones for including pointed barbs directly aimed at corporate institutions like T-Mobile and…John Mayer(?). But that type of comedy comes at a price. Too much of FWB’s humor is of the snarky, overeager, hipper-than-thou variety. It’s not all that different in tone from director Will Gluck’s last comedy, Easy A, but it felt more natural on Emma Stone’s Olive character. NSA is less laugh-out loud funny, and mostly just makes you smile. Edge: FWB.
SUBPLOTS AND SIDE CHARACTERS
Both films feature father characters that burden their sons with emotional baggage. In NSA, Kutcher’s dad (played by the always-welcome Kevin Kline) is a pompous TV star sleeping with his ex-girlfriend. In FWB, JT’s dad (the always-welcome Richard Jenkins) is suffering from Alzehiemer’s. Jenkins is an amazing actor, but his storyline is treacly and an unnecessary distraction. Gluck and his writers are aiming for substance, but it feels forced. NSA avoids such pitfalls. Also, NSA wisely uses great female actresses like Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, and Lake Bell in supporting roles. FWB offers Woody Harrelson in a one-note, unfortunate performance as the “gay friend” who constantly talks about “trolling for cock.” The script requires his character to announce his homosexuality in every scene, as if the other characters had forgotten or something. Edge: NSA.
In NSA, Kutcher buys Portman a balloon after they’ve had sex because she did a “good job.” Portman later realizes she loves him over a scarfed-down bag of powdered donuts. Minor details like these prove charming. FWB shoves bookend “flash mob” scenes down the audience’s throat, which is problematic because the movie treats flash mobs as both cool and romantic. Those are two words that might have described flash mobs about 3 years ago, but ever since Howie Mandel hosted a television show devoted to them, flash mobs became instantly lame. Edge: NSA.
WINNER: NSA. Hollywood loves to double up on concepts sometimes, and it usually never really works out well for either movie. Both NSA and FWB are harmless enough though. If you can’t get enough of this subject matter, by all means, check each one out. Otherwise, I’d stick with NSA.