Like Crazy, Stupid, Love — but at a somewhat lower level of achievement — Friends With Benefits is a conventional romantic comedy that aspires to a higher level of quality and charm than most. And, like Crazy, Stupid, Love, it risks squandering a good central cast with distracting, self-conscious conceits.
The problem here isn't audience-pandering raunch. If Friends With Benefits is more clinical in its sexual humor than No Strings Attached — the year's other "sex buddies" comedy pairing a Black Swan vet with a grown-up former teen-culture heartthrob — then that's a rational choice for a comedy built around issues of casual copulation.
And stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are both game — in and out of the sack. Timberlake is a hotshot art director sought by corporate headhunter Kunis for a job opening at GQ. Kunis successfully recruits Timberlake from Los Angeles to New York where, improbably, she's the only person he knows. Bare-essential plot mechanics — swiftly depicted breakups and established family baggage providing motivation — contrive to get them in bed but not in a relationship.
Whether negotiating sexual mechanics or rapping along with Kriss Kross' eternal '90s hit "Jump" — Timberlake is the rare star who can make this kind of standard-issue rom-com musical scene charming — this well-cast pair is highly engaging. They seem to enjoy each other, and, unlike Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached, you believe them as a couple.
Unfortunately, the movie is too busy and desperately conceived to rest on their chemistry. Friends With Benefits falters with the side stuff. Most of the non-sex humor is built around blatantly zeitgeist-seeking topics — flash mobs, iPad apps, Los Angeles street art, etc. — that feel artificially inserted. The usually welcome Patricia Clarkson plays Kunis' oddball, permissive mother in a characterization that feels like a riff on her role in Friends With Benefits director Will Gluck's previous film, Easy A. It was funny then, annoying now. And Woody Harrelson, as a gay GQ colleague who can't stop joking about his sexuality, is saddled with perhaps the most uncomfortable role/performance in movies this year.