There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with pastiche – a creative technique in which a creator imitates another’s style. Its use has gifted us with Star Wars, offered up the frenetic beauty of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World, and allowed Will Gluck to gush over ‘80s teen romances with Easy A. The latter hammered into our cinematic hearts because it used an understanding and adoration of John Hughes to offer a wickedly clever piece that was equal parts wild nostalgia and cohesive, contemporary fun.
But Gluck’s latest, Friends with Benefits (directed by, and co-written with Keith Merryman, David A Newman, and Harley Peyton), rests solidly in the problematic realm of pastiche – a postmodern* desert where a “superabundance of disconnected images and styles” offers mimicry without context. Moments bounce from raunchy to schmaltzy to funny to super-serious in the blink of an eye. Each character throws out torrents of one-liners and embodies a mess of disparate traits that are copied without being contextualized. Sadly, it’s no more obvious than in moments concerning Jamie’s (Mila Kunis) sexuality.
Our heroine is framed as the modern, free-thinking, and smart-living professional who has sex on her terms; she rails against emotional intimacy and wants no-fuss sexual partnerships. She appears to offer an alternative to the slut stigma; she’s not condemned for her desire to have casual sex. She sees what she wants and she goes after it on her terms. Or so it seems.
Peel away the cinematic surface and Jamie isn’t the Samantha Jones of the 2010s. She’s the girl acting in a particular way to nab the object of her affection. She yearns for the grand gestures of romcomdom, as much as she “hates” them, and while she’d swear otherwise, she’s an embodiment of all the romantic ladies who came before her. Jamie’s the foul-mouthed, manic pixie dream girl as played by Sandra Bullock while having sex in the city and yearning for a white knight. She’s the emblem of a greater whole. While Friends with Benefits tries to affix itself as the alterna-romcom, it ultimately embraces all it claims to be against and layers the whole affair in a haze of mistrust. It’s a potluck of recognizable tropes – the sex isn’t just casual; they’re more than friends; they hang with their obligatory sidekicks – the mom, the snarky gay friend, the precocious kid. (Patricia Clarkson is always a pleasure, but here she just plays a more selfish, dysfunctional version of her mom in Easy A.)
This is to say nothing of the obvious, and well-covered, links to No Strings Attached. Once again, a Black Swan star plays the girl with issues who gets into a casual relationship with someone she doesn’t know, decides to have sex without commitment, becomes wildly good friends with him before falling for him, and while his older and sickly father adds a wrench in the affair, her true feelings are awkwardly shared and they live happily ever after.
Because Kunis and Timberlake are so damn likable, and surrounded by likable supporting stars, Friends with Benefits can be enjoyable enough. Their down-to-earth moments and catchy one-liners are easy to watch and they boast true, old-married-couple chemistry. But ultimately, it’s all just postmodern parody, picking romantic tropes, mixing them together, and assuming it will work.
Just reading through Oxford’s definition of postmodernism is like creating a blueprint for Friends with Benefits. The film excels at creating a “culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.” Benefits juxtaposes random nibblets and assumes that’s enough to provide meaning. It’s Easy A without the web that brought the nostalgia together.
Jamie has no chance to be an authentic romantic heroine. Each aspect of her so-called modern love – sex without commitment, open communication about desires, mockery of romcom standards – are nothing more than empty characterizations quickly subverted. Jamie wants commitment, her frank talks with Dylan are leaving out half the story, and as much as she mocks romantic comedies, it is the only thing her character truly wants in the 109-minute stretch.
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice plays in the background, subtly suggesting that this too is a progressive, new look at cinematic sexuality. The iconic glove scene from On the Waterfront also pops up, suggesting an epic love and a breaking of romantic tropes as the gruff man gingerly handles the pristinely white glove. But displaying these fragments doesn’t make Friends with Benefits progressive. Clashing against the comedic train barreling towards romance, these glimpses are empty signals that have no real meaning.
Jamie and Dylan’s sex is superficial because it’s not really casual. It’s a means to an end rather than a real look at modern connections. Jamie is never allowed to truly be a woman in command of her sex life; she isn’t allowed to make her own rules. At every turn, the writers undermine her. Her casual sex quickly leads to something more. She stops being honest and expects Dylan to read her mind. For as much success as she’s supposed to have, every professional liaison is problematic. She doesn’t have a friend to confide in, and must rely on advice from her mother – a peach of a woman who will quickly drop her daughter for the love of a new man. Jamie continually puts herself down for being damaged, though we never really see it. (Instead of revealing more about her character, it becomes a self-flagellating mantra.) Where Easy A saw a heroine who lived life on her terms, with true authority, Jamie gets nothing more than a mish-mashed Exquisite Corpse characterization that removes all sense of agency and real power. When Woody Harrelson’s gay sidekick snarks, “She’s a girl. Sex always means more to them,” we groan, but sadly, the film is intent on making it true rather than defeating the statement.
It’s not loathsome like The Ugly Truth (which is mocked, along with Katherine Heigl), where the mess of a woman must be trained by the man, but it’s perhaps more irksome because the comedy is the antiquated wolf wrapped in the modern sheep’s clothing. The whole affair becomes condescending, with Dylan and Jamie’s declarations of casual sex not showing a progressive mindset, but rather an ignorance about themselves and their connection. There’s no dramatic tension or question of whether they will be together. There’s not even a question of how (the inevitably screams from their first moments together). As Dave White reviewed, "It's a new Journey of Heartfelt Feeling for them, but you've seen it a million times already."
When Harry Met Sally this is not. Claims of newness mask the same ol’ shtick, none of which means a whole heck of a lot. On the surface, it looks like a new way to look at women's sexuality and romantic comedy, but dig further and being friends with benefits is just an innocent step on the path to old-school romance, women who have no friends and mess up their lives, and a pair of lovers being delusional about their romantic inevitability. Jamie’s independence and strength are empty signifiers that mask her emotional, romance-lusting center – all of the fun shortcomings that plague romcom heroines these days.
Sadly, if Gluck and his co-writers had just let these characters be what they’re trying to be – and not shoehorn them into a postmodern pastiche of superficial romcom clichés – the comedy probably would have been a classic, and we’d have a romantic comedy heroine we could love.
*Quoted definitions of postmodernism taken from Oxford’s Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms.