Friends With Benefits: Fooling around with romance

By Michele Manelis

The latest Hollywood rom-com takes aim at the genre while trying to find a new answer to an old question about sex, reports Michele Manelis.

The premise is self-explanatory. Friends With Benefits, starring former teen heartthrob, Justin Timberlake and Ukranian-born beauty, Mila Kunis, is an old-fashioned rom-com disguised as a post-modern, edgy take on romance in an age of social media. It questions the long-standing notion: can men and women remain friends in a "no-ties" sexual relationship?

Many sex comedies that debate the same issue have enjoyed success, namely, When Harry Met Sally in 1989, and Reality Bites in 1994.

Says FwB director Will Gluck: "Justin and I wanted to make a When Harry Met Sally for our generation and I think Friends with Benefits will stand the test of time."

Timberlake was the first in line to be cast, continuing his busy run of films which have ranged from the Oscar-nominated The Social Network to comedy fare like Bad Teacher.

"My music has taken a back seat for a while during this time where I want to focus on acting. I don't feel like I have to prove anything to anyone necessarily, except to myself. The calibre of actors I work with is proof alone that I have personal success," he says.

Kunis most recently starred in the emotionally fraught Oscar-winning movie, Black Swan for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. It stands to reason she was looking for lighter fare in Friends With Benefits. Coincidentally, her former Black Swan co-star, Natalie Portman, seemed to have had the same thing in mind. She agreed to star in the identically themed No Strings Attached, opposite Ashton Kutcher earlier this year.

Says Gluck: "People keep comparing Friends with Benefits to No Strings Attached but it's not the second movie about the same thing. It's the ten-thousandth movie. This is just about a boy and a girl getting together, and falling in love. How they do it is kind of weird and not the way we usually see it. Having said that, I think our movie is very different to No Strings Attached."

In FwB, the characters get together after both have broken up with someone and decide to enter into a tangle-free, no-hassle tryst.

Kunis says of her character is trying to figure life out and who she is. "She's somebody whose heart has been broken probably multiple times, and who has trust issues," she says. "I think she's like any 20-something-year-old out there today, who's living life."

The sexual authenticity was as important and as present as the snappy dialogue. Gluck says, "There's a fine line between comedy and pornography. You can't do both. I was careful that it never got titillating or sexual. So we walked that line although I did feel at times like a porn director," he laughs.

"It would have been a drag if Justin and I didn't get along," Kunis understates. "I wouldn't describe those scenes as embarrassing. I was grateful that I was as comfortable as I was, or rather, as comfortable as you can be with a 150-person crew standing around watching."

Gluck put together an exemplary supporting cast including Richard Jenkins, Patricia Clarkson, Woody Harrelson, and Easy A star Emma Stone.

Like Easy A, he infuses the script with a lot of pop culture references. "I wanted it to feel real. You'll notice that none of the pop culture references are current because I don't want this movie to feel dated. I never want in my movies for someone to say a reference and half the audience not know what they are talking about and then feel bad about themselves that they don't understand," he says. "That being said, with this generation, all we talk about is music and movies and stuff; it's a fine line to figure out what's going to endure."

In terms of these enduring references, the movie skewers rom-com cliches, aiming directly at Katherine Heigel starring vehicles.

"I'm not saying anything bad about her movies. They're very good and the character played by Mila wants to live in a Katherine Heigl movie. I don't see it as making fun of these movies, I just want to do an updated version of them."

Gluck isn't sure what he'll tackle next. He offers, "I like doing movies about real things. I don't like doing movies about flying elephants or asteroids because that doesn't happen to me. I don't know if it happens to you, but there's only a certain amount of things in life that really happen right? Falling in love, dying, war. Maybe in a couple of years I'll do a World War II movie."

Given that this is his second movie in a row with an overtly sexual theme, he says: "Well, in Easy A, there was no sex at all; it was just about reputation, and rumour.

"It's funny, it became this thing of people thinking I'm making these movies about sex. But to me, they're not really about sex at all. They're about people."

LOWDOWN

What: Friends with Benefits, romantic comedy starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, directed by Will Gluck
When: Opens at cinemas today

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