MOVIE REVIEW: 'Friends with Benefits' pleases despite its been-done-before story

Special Photo: Sony Screen Gems. Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake star in "Friends with Benefits."

Special Photo: Sony Screen Gems. Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake star in "Friends with Benefits."

Friends with Benefits (R)

3 out of 4 stars

Almost six months to the day after the release of “No Strings Attached,” “Friends with Benefits” does essentially the same thing slightly better. Many industry folks and fan blogs are calling into question the logic behind the too-close release date of this title, which is valid, but is also more than a little myopic.

Hollywood and the throngs it serves thrive on recycled content that takes few chances. Studios and filmmakers know exactly what (mostly female) audiences want from their romantic comedies, and rarely if ever is that formula ever tinkered with or altered.

In its first 10 minutes, “FWB” does do a few things different. Unlike her “Black Swan” co-star Natalie Portman in “NSA,” Mila Kunis’ Jamie has no history with her soon-to-be sex object Dylan (Justin Timberlake). She’s a high-end headhunter who says all the right things to get him to abandon his L.A. roots, move to New York and take a cushy job overhauling GQ magazine’s website.

Getting characters from point A (total strangers) to point B (friends and non-committal lovers) could have taken forever — or worse not been believable — but director Will Gluck and his committee of co-writers handle the exposition swiftly and economically. Both Jamie and Dylan are instantly likable and the chemistry between Timberlake and Kunis is searing and palpable. So far, so pretty good.

The filmmakers also have Dylan and Jamie poke fun at the lame nature of romantic comedies and goes the extra mile by including a fake movie-within-a-movie starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones to underscore the point. It’s not groundbreaking but it is somewhat clever yet sadly also marks the end of “FWB” being unique.

It doesn’t take long for “FWB” to start falling prey to everything it chides and mocks. The story trajectory becomes by-the-numbers and thoroughly predictable yet is still able to remain recommendable thanks to the flawless performances of the supporting cast and bit players and the inclusion of a quite serious medical condition subplot.

At the top of the list are three former Oscar nominees including Patricia Clarkson and Richard Jenkins as Jamie and Dylan’s respective single parents. The former is still clinging to a ’60s hippie mantra while the latter is rife with regret and what might have been. Jenkins’ late third act monologue alone is worth the price of admission.

Nearly matching Jenkins in the wise/sage department is Jenna Elfman, who plays his character’s daughter and Dylan’s sister. Generally regulated to ditzy, flighty roles, Elfman does a lot with a little and reveals some previously untapped dramatic chops.

Being that “FWB” is a hip, eager-to-please and all-inclusive R-rated heterosexual romantic comedy, there is the obligatory inclusion of a feisty gay character. Not swishy, flamboyant or stereotypical in the least, Woody Harrelson tackles the tricky part with relish and a measured, yet slightly reckless abandon. He plays a sports writer who is very comfortable being gay and regularly tries to sway Dylan into switching teams. Like Jenkins, Harrelson is also afforded a second half solo speech that squarely hits its mark.

In retrospect, going the route of an R rating might not serve “FWB” as well as it should. When you’re given a lot of leeway with content and language, you either go all the way or opt for the tamer and more commercially viable PG-13. While the four-letter words show up regularly, they’re not used wisely and almost feel as if they’re tacked on to artificially raise the shock value where none is needed.

For those interested (and really, who isn’t to some degree?), both Kunis and Timberlake are seen in the buff multiple times but always in a flattering and carefully strategic way. The editors and production design crew certainly earned their keep. You don’t see as much as you think you do. New York City has also never looked grander.

Thanks to the performances, “FWB” is better than it probably appeared to be on paper. (Screen Gems)