Though self-consciously set in the bicoastal Hollywood axis of New York-Los Angeles, “Friends With Benefits” more properly takes place amid the movie world of romantic comedies.
It aims to ditch schmaltz and replace it with snap, the kind found in the classic rom-coms of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn or Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night,” a poster of which hangs above a busy bed in “Friends With Benefits.”
The more modern, saccharine conventions are mocked. Justin Timberlake, playing a magazine art director, parodies the manipulative music of tidy romances. Mila Kunis, as a New York corporate headhunter, goes so far as to, when passing a street poster of “The Ugly Truth,” curse Katherine Heigl.
(Kate Hudson, Drew Barrymore and Matthew McConaughey can breathe sighs of relief; they are spared specific denunciation. But they know what they’ve done.)
“Friends With Benefits” follows “No Strings Attached” (with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher) as this year’s second comedy about friends who confidently decide to weed out emotion from sex, only to find that such calculation is impossible even for today’s tech-savvy multitaskers.
This film, directed and co-written by Will Gluck (“Easy A”), is easily superior to its forerunner, but nevertheless disappoints by eventually falling prey to the very clichés it strives to upend.
“Friends With Benefits” opens in fine style, with dueling breakups (Emma Stone and Andy Samberg guest as the exes). Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) then meet when Dylan travels from Los Angeles to New York for a job interview at GQ, arranged by Jamie. The magazine gets heavy promotion in the film, even co-opting the old Rockefeller Center address of The Associated Press, leaving at least one critic to gasp in mock insult. (It’s not like Conde Nast’s actual digs are shabby, I snorted.)
Jamie sells Dylan on transplanting to New York, and the two quickly work up a friendship and great, rapid-fire banter. Each having soured on relationships, they opt for a purely sexual affair. As every audience member knows, their journey from cynicism to genuine romance follows.
It’s, of course, an old plot and one tried out in movies and sitcoms (including one referenced here, “Seinfeld”), but Gluck expends a great deal of energy in imbuing the comedy with smarts and emotional realism. Much of the film unfolds more organically than the wide majority of romantic comedies.
This is the third film for Gluck, a TV veteran. With “Friends With Benefits” and “Easy A,” his style has come into clear relief. His hyper, R-rated dialogue runs at nearly a “His Girl Friday” pace and is stuffed with postmodern pop culture references. Here, a mother-daughter trip is compared to “a Nora Ephron movie,” and “Harry Potter” fandom is equated with homosexuality. Snowboarder Shaun White, in a misstep, makes a cameo (playing angry, against type), and John Mayer is jokingly referred to as “the Sheryl Crow of our generation.”
Gluck (who shares screenplay credit with Keith Merryman and David Newman) is clearly whip smart and he likes his films that way. This all to the good, but much of “Friends With Benefits” comes off as too showy in its cleverness. Punch lines (some of which land very well) are too happy with themselves.
“Easy A” was framed as a live webcast with flashbacks and “Friends With Benefits,” too, exudes an ease with technology. Jamie and Dylan’s pact is made not on a Bible, but on a Bible app. Flash mobs make numerous appearances. In a crafty twist, the closing credits run like iPad text, with hands sliding and flicking names.
This is not screwball confusion amid modern technology, but smooth, effortless mastery of it. Dylan purchases Jamie a plane ticket on his phone in a moment. Winking jokes are made about cell phone coverage.
The problem of being too smart and too suave is there in the cast, too. In Emma Stone, whose star was made in “Easy A,” Gluck had a perfect, Hepburn-like lead for his dialogue, delivered with droll deadpan. Timberlake and Kunis are terrific comic actors, but neither, certainly, is droll.
Each is exceptionally handsome and lively. They look great in bed together and have comic timing to spare. But their dynamic comes off less as chemistry (which suggests some dramatic friction) than as mirror reflections of each other.
Woody Harrelson (as a gay guy’s guy), Patricia Clarkson (as Jamie’s flighty mother) and Richard Jenkins (lending a dose of seriousness as Dylan’s aging father) lead a strong supporting cast.
The funniest satire of romantic comedies comes in a movie within the movie: a mock Hollywood, cliché-ridden film called “I Love You, I Love New York,” with Jason Segel and Rashida Jones.
With soaring music, Segel delivers a line for which we can only guess at the sappy metaphor: “Looks like New York is all out of blueberries.”
If only “Friends With Benefits” had given in as completely to mockery as “I Love You, I Love New York.”