From Shakespeare and Austen through Tracy and Hepburn, when it comes to romantic comedies, chemistry is king. It's one reason the rom-com has long seemed like the toughest code for Hollywood to crack.
But never underestimate the power of snappy, rapid-fire banter, the paving stones of the Hollywood road to romance.
That's another way of saying Friends With Benefits, the R-rated romantic delight of the summer, had me the moment Mila Kunis' character passed a poster for the failed rom-com The Ugly Truth and uttered this immortal line: "Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you stupid liar!"
Friends pairs Kunis, as Jamie, a New York corporate recruiter ("head hunter"), and Justin Timberlake as Dylan, an L.A. editor whom she hunts, hires, befriends and eventually tumbles into bed with — a friendship with sexual benefits. Yeah, it's like No Strings Attached. Only better. Snappier.
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The not-quite-lovers "meet cute," in the classic Hollywood style.
"I'm from L.A.," Dylan chirps, in New York to see whether this job at GQ magazine would be a good fit. "I like my open spaces."
"What are you, a gazelle?" Jamie shoots back. "You L.A. folk are so ... cute."
The movie by Will Gluck (Easy A) — with script by Gluck, David A. Newman and Keith Merryman — is all about the New York-L.A. conflict. Everybody in NYC yanks poor Dylan's chain — sarcastic, biting put-downs, fake threats and come-ons. The works. There's Woody Harrelson, cast against type as the butch yet over-the-top gay sports editor, and in a hilarious cameo, gonzo snowboarder Shaun White repeatedly scares the bejeezus out of the overmatched Dylan. No wonder he clings to Jamie, his first friend in New York. She's into weepy romantic comedies, which they watch together.
"Why don't they ever make a movie about what happens after the kiss?"
"It's called porn."
Being young and good-looking and married to their jobs and so frequently burned by other relationships, naturally they tempt fate by trying the sex-without-complications thing. "Two people should be able to have sex the way they play tennis."
Set the ground rules — no emotions, "just sex," and "whatever happens, we stay friends."
Take an oath on that. On a Bible. "They have an app for that. Swear-on-your-Bible app, 'No relationship!'"
And see how it all works out.
Gluck knocks us on our heels with the film's opening scene — dueling breakups (Andy Samberg is the guy doing Jamie wrong, Emma Stone of Easy A shrieks her way out of an affair with Dylan). Later, Richard Jenkins, Patricia Clarkson and Jenna Elfman show up in tiny but funny roles as relatives.
And the stars pick it up from there. Kunis already has sitcom-ready timing, and the editing makes the zingers zing by. Dylan leaves his socks on during sex — "I can work with that," she says. But this sex-not-love thing "seems a little college-y" to her.
"I could sing a little Third Eye Blind," he fires back. Then Timberlake croons a little Closing Time. By Semi-Sonic. Not Third Eye Blind.
They finish each other's sentences and read each other like books — comic books.
"Every time you curse, you blink. It's as if your body's rejecting the word."
Will they find each other promising enough to move beyond mating to dating? What do you think? Yeah, we all know the formula. But when it works and the chemistry is just right, we love seeing exactly what we expect and hope for.
With Friends With Benefits after Easy A, Gluck is now two for two. Hollywood could have its new romantic comedy king. But only as long as he avoids the charms of Katherine Heigl.