"Friends With Benefits," the biggest and most delightful surprise of the summer, should serve as definitive proof that both Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis can be top-line Hollywood headliners. The film follows Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis), both successful young professionals- Dylan an art director, first at an online startup, then at GQ, and Jamie a headhunter- as they navigate the romantic complexities of their lives. Shockingly enough, Dylan and Jamie discover a shared attraction soon after meeting, but both are reluctant to commit to a relationship following tough breakups, so they settle for regular casual sex.
A sputtering first 15 minutes, which has its share of uncomfortably unfunny jokes and inexplicably poor acting, would seem to confirm anyone's worst expectations of "Friends With Benefits," but those who can withhold judgment a bit longer are rewarded. Uncompromisingly risque humor (the film has a very solid "R" MPAA rating) and some purely comedic interludes from Dylan's gay colleague, Tommy (a funny-as-always Woody Harrelson) help the film settle into its groove, and from there it's smooth sledding. Perhaps the most unprecedented success of "Friends With Benefits" are some fairly sappy but rather poignant moments featuring Dylan's father, played by a scene-stealing Richard Jenkins, who is in the early-to-intermediate stage of Alzheimer's. Jenkins lends a moving angle to the otherwise corny romantic pep talk that his character gives his son in regards to Jamie.
Set up for cliche from the beginning, "Friends With Benefits" tries to defy genre expectations by mocking them openly throughout, with Jamie shouting in the opening minutes at a poster for the recent (and by all accounts dreadful) romantic comedy "The Ugly Truth." But "Friends With Benefits" knows that it cannot reach its inevitable finale without bowing to stereotype somewhere along the way, and its artful navigation of the line between cliche and convention is what makes it so impressive. By the time Dylan and Jamie have gotten together at the end, we are both genuinely happy for them and convinced that this happy ending is different, making "Friends With Benefits" is a welcome change of pace and a pleasure to watch.