In theory, Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) are on the same page. They're both bruised from recent breakups, which take place on opposite coasts in the first minutes of Friends With Benefits. Both bust-ups end with Dylan and Jamie, the dumped parties, vowing to keep it simple from here on out.
They're professional acquaintances first, with Jamie, a Manhattan headhunter, recruiting L.A. native Dylan for a job opening as art director at GQ. Like a rocky first date, the film tries too hard in this early stretch, cramming in breathless banter before we've gotten a feel for the characters. It settles down. As Dylan and Jamie shift into genuine friendship, Friends With Benefits finds its footing, and the transition - for them and the film - into a no-strings-attached sex arrangement not only seems effortless, but is very funny, line to line.
The middle of a movie is often where filmmakers lose their way, but Friends With Benefits nails this stretch, in which nothing very remarkable happens as two people talk, in bed and out of bed. There's a fine line between fun-dirty and ick-dirty - sometimes you can't identify the line until it's been crossed - and this one keeps its toes on the right side of raunch. That has everything to do with the sometimes larky, sometimes barky chemistry between its leads. Kunis, who can convey warmth then wrath within two sharp breaths, makes a tart, lovely foil for Timberlake's doofy charms.
But then - as is wont to happen, in movies and in life - shit gets complicated, and the fundamental thinness of Friends With Benefits becomes unavoidable. Chemistry is great and all, and who doesn't love a truly blue zinger, but when you strip the fun from the film and shine the inevitable third-act light on the characters' neuroses - the ostensible roadblock to a romantic relationship - there's not much to chew on. Jamie's hang-ups are especially ill-defined. While the script repeatedly announces her Prince Charming fixation - yawn - that shorthand doesn't at all square with Kunis' salty-dog characterization.
As in Will Gluck's directorial debut, the more ambitious Easy A, he leans too hard on pop-culture touchstones to carry the comedy. And a fictitious movie-within-the-movie - an intentionally cornpone romantic comedy starring an unbilled Jason Segel and Rashida Jones - only highlights Friends With Benefits' chief frustration: that it's smart enough to call bullshit on Hollywood's rom-com clichés, but never savvy enough to truly subvert them.