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MOVIE REVIEW

Friends With Benefits

Timberlake and Kunis make ‘Friends’ worth watching

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 22, 2011

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"Friends With Benefits” is a mainstream metrosexual romantic comedy, and that sounds as if it shouldn’t work at all. That it works like a charm - that it mostly keeps its manic energy in check, and that it plays to chick-flick formulas without ever groveling - is due almost entirely to the leads. We saw this same movie last winter, when it was called “No Strings Attached’’ and starred Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. Welcome to the much improved remake featuring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, two stars we actually want to see. Also making their debut appearance together: a pace, a pulse, and a script.

She plays Jamie, a hard-charging Manhattan headhunter; he plays Dylan, an LA graphic designer she woos east to work for GQ. Right there you’ve got what makes this movie different, or different enough. She’s ballsy, he’s finicky. She’s brutally direct, he’s sly and playful. In terms of this genre, she’s the guy and he’s the girl. Brilliant - why didn’t they think of it before?

As with the earlier film, it’s established that these two are perfect for each other but decide to cheat fate by going for sex and friendship and skipping the bothersome love part. After some pro forma gags about New York versus Los Angeles, yadda yadda, “Friends With Benefits’’ settles into its actual order of business, which is watching the two stars bicker at warp speed.

Both Kunis and Timberlake have livened up plenty of movies from the sidelines (“Black Swan’’ and “The Social Network’’ for starters), but putting them together as leads is a gamble: Do they have the weight to hold the center? Wrong question, since weight is exactly what a studio cupcake like this shouldn’t have. (The combined presence of Portman and Kutcher sank “No Strings Attached’’ like a stone.)

Kunis’s easy authority grounds the movie, while Timberlake tapdances delightfully around the edges. His voice and his manner are light, there’s barely a hair on the guy’s chest, yet his confidence and wit are sexy in a way entirely befitting a smart urban romance. Her, after admitting to doing a background check: “How could you max out an Old Navy card?’’ Him: “I was really into cargo pants!’’ We’re definitely on the other side of the looking glass here.

Just to make sure we know Dylan’s straight, the film tosses in Woody Harrelson as a super-macho gay co-worker, and, no, the character doesn’t make any sense. But Harrelson’s game to play, and so are the other supporting actors: Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s free-spirit mom, Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s dad, struggling with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and especially Jenna Elfman as Dylan’s sweetly deadpan older sister.

Expert players all, and they happily bat the brittle, bright dialogue around. The sex scenes are raunchy and funny; they feel lived-in rather than staged. As directed by Will Gluck (“Easy A,’’ tons of television work), “Friends With Benefits’’ nods to a lot of other movies - there’s an “It Happened One Night’’ poster on a bedroom wall, a glimpse of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’’ on TV, and a wonderfully awful fake chick flick that Jamie likes to get weepy over, starring an uncredited Jason Segel and Rashida Jones and consisting of every lousy Nicholas Sparks cliché in the book.

“Friends With Benefits’’ so badly doesn’t want to be that movie that it gets a little hyperactive at times. The film’s biggest liability is a pop-music soundtrack that never, ever shuts up, throwing one peppy alt-rock bonbon after another at our heads. The music supervisor is Wende Crowley; can someone give her some Ritalin?

Eventually, too, the movie has to give in to the rom-com cheese it has avoided until then. One character has to get emotionally hurt; another character has to say “I messed up. I was scared.’’ Not all the flash mobs in Grand Central Station (I know; how very 2009) can make this story feel new.

It’s a confection, then, but an enjoyable one, and Kunis and Timberlake go together like blinis and caviar. Someone put them in more movies, please - this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS Directed by: Will Gluck

Written by: Will Gluck, David A. Newman, Harley Peyton, Keith Merryman

Starring: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman,

Richard Jenkins

At: Boston Common,

Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: R (sexual content

and language)

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