Not Entirely Beneficial, by Charles Lyons
Will Gluck makes movies about human concession. The still somewhat newly-minted director—a filmmaker with just three titles to his name, 2009’s Fired Up!, 2010’s Easy A and now Friends with Benefits—poignantly understands that making peace or compromising with things we once rebelled against or resented is a key part of the human experience. Growing up or evolving as a person means conceding and giving in sometimes, if only a little bit at a time. Gluck’s cinema is populated by characters who feel they’re above—or are at least clearly aware of—the clichés and routine workings of their environments or societies. Further, they’re people who feel they should be unshackled by such societal expectations, free to make their own way in the world. People who, by film’s end, conclude that sometimes you have to give a little to get a little, as it were. However on-the-nose or self-aware Gluck and his screenwriters’ trafficking of this theme might be at times, their overriding nature, excepting his debut, Fired Up!, a film that remains unseen by this critic, is that of a certain genuineness, heart and carefulness. This guy isn’t faking it, which makes his films’ occasional inconsistencies or annoyances easier to stomach.
In his largely winning new film, the seemingly post-modern rom-com Friends with Benefits, this central motif is presented via a series of smaller concessions that eventually give way to a much larger one. The film follows the progression of a relationship between head-hunter Jamie (Mila Kunis) and the GQ art director she hires, Dylan (Justin Timberlake), from platonic pals, to purely-physical fuck buddies, to, eventually, the blossoming of true love. Indeed, the entire relationship is a domino line of concessions, big and small. Each and every decision made rings with a slight pang of begrudge. When Dylan and Jamie first settle to consummate their already flirtatious relationship, it’s with a sense that each is the other’s last resort for interpersonal pleasure of any kind. There’s also a lingering, surprisingly realistic flavor of temporality; both know this can’t last forever.
These same qualities are again unearthed when Kunis and Timberlake compare tattoos, hers of a dog (she’s always wanted one) and his a lightning bolt (he nurses a lifelong dream of having superpowers as well as a deep admiration for Harry Potter). Both designs were intended as provocation in the twilight of their adolescent years, yet wound up counterintuitively being rooted in naive, childhood desire, thereby nixing any rebelliousness the act itself might suggest. This is yet another poignant concession, but this time one of the subconscious order.
In Gluck’s charming yet distinctly uneven second film, Easy A, the motif of concession is embodied by its lead character, Olive (a great Emma Stone), and her aggressive awareness of the tropes of the high school film and of the cookie-cutter path she’s expected to follow as an attractive, intelligent, ambitious young woman. Here’s someone at the cusp of womanhood both fully aware of where she’s supposed to go and what she’s supposed to do. Yet at the same time she’s completely lost at sea, a character that is, it should be said, vibrantly realized by the game-for-anything Stone. As the film wares on, however, Olive arrives at the realization that the most fulfilling road for her to take might be the one most-trod, a path ridden with cliché, but ultimately rich and satisfying. Following suit, the film evolves from a sometimes painfully self-aware high school comedy that both dodged and noted truisms of the genre, and into a full-fledged, unabashed, far more earnest entry into the genre itself. Because of Gluck’s genuine, well-meaning approach and the dedication of his performers, the film survives such a radical shift in viewpoint and thematic angle. Gluck’s successful approach is not unlike that of the unfairly maligned Farrelly brothers, whose ever-mounting grotesqueries build until they hit their breaking point, and then are allowed to deteriorate, revealing a sensitive, tactful, traditionally-minded center boiling under the proceedings, a sensitivity that reminds of Gluck.
Friends with Benefits achieves a similar feat. For a while it’s a movie that makes a case against the idealism and unrealistic nature of our current society’s vision of what an adult romance should be. However, like Easy A before it, in its final stretch, the film mirrors the emotional evolution of Dylan and Jamie by transforming into something altogether more conservatively-minded. Well into its third act, the film concedes thematically, and consciously changes sides. Rather than rail against its fairy-tale-minded brethren, it ends up rallying behind the very ideals it seemed once so averse to. This may seem like an odd development—and many have complained, calling it disingenuous and unfitting—but Gluck’s films are anything but disingenuous. Further still, these ideological digressions aren’t borne out of a need to please, or to play to the lowest common denominator. Rather, these are devilishly and thrillingly reflexive movies, ones whose structures and thematic journeys complexly mirror that of their characters.
Which is to say, and contrary to popular belief, being ideologically or thematically inconsistent are decidedly not problems Gluck’s films fall prey to. His movies, do, however, have their issues, namely in the screenplay department. Though often incisive and witty, the scripts for Gluck’s movies are also written in such a way that unfortunately recalls Diablo Cody; awkwardly—and pointlessly—overloaded with irony and self-awareness. Select moments even reach a level of wince-worthiness. Both Friends with Benefits and Easy A also contain pesky instances of wackiness and physical comedy that don’t rhyme with its more spry, humanistic elements. Finally, like many mainstream American comedies of its ilk, Benefits is alive with copious amounts of gay panic that squanders, among other things, a perfectly good performance from the oft-excellent Woody Harrelson as Dylan’s eccentric gay friend and co-worker. (For what’s it’s worth, Keith Merryman and David A. Newman co-wrote the screenplay for Friends with Benefits with Gluck, and Easy A was authored solely by Bert V. Royal.)
Yet this isn’t to underplay the enthusiastic success Gluck affirms with much of his work, particularly in Friends with Benefits. Granted, the brunt of his success is found in the performances he coaxes out of his actors. Gluck’s cinema is not exactly one characterized by visual dynamism, though his workmanlike movies don’t look bad, exactly. Nonetheless, Friends is a showcase of strong performances, particularly by Kunis and Timberlake, a pair of tremendous on-screen presences, bursting with charisma, who navigate both their comedic and dramatic duties with zest, charm, and willing flexibility (even slogging through the more on-the-nose and awkward bits of Merryman, Newman and Gluck’s dialogue). If the movie is a prime exemplar of one of mainstream American cinema’s most frustrating tendencies—that being an almost total reliance on performance and little-to-no attention paid to the look of the film—then it’s a very fine example indeed. It’s also a film with an actually discernible pulse and beating heart beneath its nothing-special sheen, something pretty special in itself.