Friends With Benefits: Will (Easy A) Gluck’s Romantic Comedy, Starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis

Fast-paced, clever, and timely, Friends with Benefits, the new romantic comedy from the whip smart director-producer Will Gluck (“Easy A”) is ultimately too formulaic to qualify as a truly good or original picture.

Thematically, the movie deals with the same issues as the recent comedy “No String Attached,” starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, though it is much better in every respect.

First, the good news, the film’s merits.  Two charming actors, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, usually relegated to secondary and supporting roles, are elevated to lead positions and prove that they can hold the screen center-stage.

Second, unlike “No Strings Attached,” in which there was no chemistry, erotic and otherwise, between Kutcher and Portman (you really didn’t root for them to be together), there’s strong rapport, in and out of bed, between Timberlake and Kunis.

When first seen, Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) come across as committed singles that are proud of their position.  They go out of their way to prove that they are not interested in courting seriously, let alone settling down with one lover.

The first, and best, reel depicts the duo as they mostly talk business.  Committed to New York, Jamie is an aggressive executive recruiter, trying to put pressure on the cool, highly competent L.A.-based Dylan to take a job.

In a series of brief and brisk scenes, we observe how Jamie utilizes her considerable headhunting skills on luring the hotshot art director Dylan to take what she describes as “a dream job” in New York.  To that extent, she takes him around to all the cool spots of the Big Apple, including one personal site, a roof of a skyscraper from which the view of the city is nothing short of stunning.

Slowly succumbing to her charms, Dylan begins to realize that perhaps there’s something else going on.  Soon, the couple realizes that they are kindred spirits, each recovering from failed relationships and damaged emotional experiences.  After Dylan relocates to New York, the pair starts hanging out regularly, sharing laughs, and declaring that romantic love is just a myth propagated by novels and Hollywood movies.

Trying not to repeat “mistakes” of the past, Dylan and Jamie decide to be fuck buddies, making sure to establish a rigid set of rules of what is permitted and hat is forbidden. Question is, if they add casual “no emotions” sex to their friendship, can they really avoid the pitfalls that come with thinking about someone else as more than just a sex partner?

The series of sexual encounters that follow by turn awkward, funny, and delicious, from the act of stripping and examining each other’s genitalia all the way to sexual intercourse, with plenty of oral sex in between.  It’s noteworthy that the sexual chatter and acts are more explicit (in sections even vulgar) than is the norm in similar Hollywood movies, and the filmmakers deserve credit for insisting on an R rating that would allow them to do that (initially the rating was PG-13).

Soon they face the familiar and inevitable dilemmas, which are a direct result of their grown-up experiment. Could they remain best friends who just enjoy sex with each other?  Could sex remain a physical activity without emotional involvement? How long can they go on claiming they are happy with things just as they are as two successful, career-oriented individuals who enjoy being unattached and scorn long-term commitment.

Problem is, we viewers are ahead of the characters, their illusions and delusions, and their games. Not surprisingly, what begins as a bold move of a bawdy, sexy ride into uncharted territory, soon changes into something more emotionally intense and psychologically complicated, involving some painful exposure of their feelings, their past, and their families.

The writers, Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, and director Gluck, penning a smart script based on a story by Harley Peyton, Merryman, and Newman, must have realized that they can’t craft a narrative that relies on just two characters.  As a result, they have added three or four secondary figures (members of Dylan and Jamie’s families) to enliven the proceedings.

It is here that the movie begins to go wrong and to gradually slide into the turf of a formulaic TV sitcom.  The narrative slows down and becomes sticky and and predictable with scenes about Jamie’s sluttish, eccentric and wacky mother (Patricia Clarkson), Dylan’s troubled dad (Richard Jenkins), who suffers from Atzheimer’s, Dylan’s divorcee sister (Jenna Elfman) and her son.  It’s too bad that the writers did not develop more the secondary characters, all of which are like caricatures and narrowly-defined, serving as diversion (and distraction) from the main plot.

But the acting of the two leads is consistently good, even when the writing gets weaker and the plotting sensless.  Mila Kunis, lastseen as Natalie portman’s nemesis in “Black Swan,” is not drop-ded gorgeous by conventional standards, but she is sexy and appealing, and with some luck, she may become a leading lady. Timberlake, who made strong mark in supporting roles in lat year’s Oscar-nominated “The Social Network” and more recently in “Bad Teacher” seems ready to move to the major league.

In its good moments, which are plentiful, “Friends with Benefits” boasts the kind of rapid-fire, clever patter that recalls the Tracy-Hepburn battle of the sexes comedies of the 1940s and 1950s (“Woman of the Year,” “Adams Rib,” “Pat and Mike”).