'Friends With Benefits' (R)

Did Black Swan co-stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis make a secret pact, after filming the acclaimed ballet drama, to make competing versions of the same movie? Friends With Benefits is practically identical to No Strings Attached, in which Portman and Ashton Kutcher play friends who agree to use each other for casual sex, only to have their arrangement derailed by those pesky, uncontrollable things we call emotions.

The new movie changes the details — Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is recruited by headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis) to relocate from L.A. to New York to take a job with GQ magazine — but the spine of the story remains practically identical. First the couple become easy friends, then they lament their single status, and then one drunken night they agree to a romp in the sheets, promising each other the sex will not interfere with their friendship in any way whatsoever.

But the sex is so good that the physical intimacy can’t help but transform into emotional attachment. Friends With Benefits was directed by Will Gluck ( Easy A), who gives the movie the rapid pace of a screwball comedy (it’s not an accident that a giant poster of It Happened One Night hangs over Jamie’s bed). The movie makes superb use of its New York backdrop – if you’ve ever lived in Manhattan, prepare to feel a little homesick — and the sex scenes are raunchy and funny, including a hilarious bit involving Dylan’s sudden need to urinate that I never thought I would ever see in a film.

Even if you didn’t see No Strings Attached, though, Friends With Benefits starts to feel woefully familiar when the couple start struggling with the romantic feelings they share and, in the tradition of all hackneyed rom-coms, fight their hearts instead of surrendering to them. A third-act visit to Los Angeles to visit Dylan’s family, where we meet his father (Richard Jenkins) who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, doesn’t so much enrich the plot as offer a device to bring the bickering lovebirds together. Timberlake, who is so good on Saturday Night Live and was terrific as Napster creator Sean Parker in The Social Network, isn’t quite up to the task of carrying a film on his own: He is certainly charismatic and likable, but he’s also a bit wan and often blown off the screen by other actors (such as Woody Harrelson, in a terrific turn as GQ’s gay sports editor).

Kunis fares better, in part because she’s given more to work with (including her relationship with her unreliable mother), but even she can’t quite sell the illusion that Jamie truly doesn’t want to be with Dylan as a couple. Friends With Benefits occasionally suffers from a terminal case of overcuteness — some business involving flash mobs, meant to be endearing, comes off as woefully artificial — but the movie is pleasant overall and occasionally comes up with a big laugh (such as a running joke involving Dylan’s Harry Potter tattoo). When the movie’s over, though, it evaporates from memory, just like a one-night stand that didn’t go nearly as well as you’d hoped.

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Bryan Greenberg, Nolan Gould, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson.

Director: Will Gluck.

Screenwriters: Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck.

Producers: Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, Jerry Zucker.

A Screen Gems release. Running time: 109 minutes. Vulgar language, brief nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Jul 22 at area theaters.


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