- - Thursday, July 21, 2011

It seems like bad marketing for a movie with such a generic premise to pitch itself as a new take on a played-out genre.

After all, “Friends With Benefits” isn’t even the first comedy to tackle the conundrum of no-strings-attached sex to be released this year — that honor goes to the aptly titled Natalie Portman vehicle “No Strings Attached,” which came out in January. “Seinfeld” took just 23 minutes to deal with the question of whether two friends could introduce sex into their relationship without the complications of romance in a season two episode called “The Deal.” Under the rules of comedy, its conclusions should carry the weight of settled law.

Nonetheless, director Will Gluck and pretty young things Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis saddle up this war horse of a story line and take it for a slow, lumbering ride. Mr. Timberlake plays Dylan, a hot young art director working on a Los Angeles website who is recruited to New York to work at GQ magazine by Jamie, a sassy corporate headhunter played by Miss Kunis. They become fast friends, partly on the basis of their shared view that romance and dating is overrated, and that popular culture — and particularly the romantic comedy — is to blame for saddling people with unrealistic desires.

To support this view, the two frequently comment on a movie-within-a-movie (starring Jason Siegel and Rashida Jones) that is intended to be an over-the-top parody of the sentimental excesses of the genre. The production errors, bad lighting and stiff dialogue of this “fake” rom-com are meant to contrast with what I suppose is intended as the clever, rapid-fire interplay between Mr. Timberlake and Miss Kunis. Its hard not to wonder if the creators of “Friends With Benefits” chose this tactic simply to make their own film seem plausible by comparison.

In what kind of world are Mr. Timberlake and Miss Kunis plausible as a smart, funny couple? A world in which a relocating magazine art director gets a furnished $5 million Manhattan apartment as a job perk. A world in which a promise to unveil the real, non-tourist New York leads to an outdoor bar at South Street Seaport. A world in which flash mobs and references to John Mayer being bad are intended as signifiers of extreme cool.

There are some laughs here — most of them wrung from extremely raunchy material. Fans of frank sexual and bathroom humor might enjoy the first half of the movie — the crowd at my screening erupted in howls from time to time. The sex scenes are unusually long for a movie of this type, not out of any erotic or comedic intent but, I think, out of an attempt to capture what purely transactional sex between friends might look like. Its not especially fun to watch.

Worse yet is when the movie takes its inevitable, serious turn. Dylan and Jamie aren’t two adults seeking to scratch a sexual itch; they are emotionally distant and afraid of commitment. Will they overcome their personal issues and take a chance on love? If you really have to ask, maybe you’re the target audience for this uninspired comedy.

★ ½

TITLE: “Friends With Benefits”

CREDIT: Directed by Will Gluck, screenplay by David A. Newman, Keith Merryman and Will Gluck

RATING: R for graphic simulated sex, language

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS