Friends With Benefits (2011)

When is a romcom that thinks it’s not a romcom really just a romcom? Uh, when it’s Friends With Benefits. A glossy, super-soundtracked puff of candy floss, Friends With Benefits wants to be more than just another generic romantic comedy (the film’s press notes continually and demonstrably use the word “pointed”), but in the end it’s nothing more than a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

That’s despite some snappy chemistry between leads Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. He’s Dylan, a high-flying Los Angeles art director. She’s Jamie, a New York recruiter. When Dylan’s head-hunted by Jamie and lands a job in the Big Apple, the two bemoan their inability to commit to relationships. The solution? Have strings-free sex without the messy feelings. Who are they trying to fool?

If the concept sounds familiar, it’s because a similar premise was cooked up for this year’s woeful Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher vehicle No Strings Attached. With its edgier leads and Easy A’s Will Gluck in the director’s chair, FWB already has a head start on the competition, and for a while it skates along nicely. Snarky and sarky, FWB opens by confidently lampooning romcom tropes (“Damn you Katherine Heigl!” Kunis screams at one point) while establishing likably eccentric characters.

It’s not long, though, before FWB loses its swagger. While promising a realistic romance, it can’t escape those clutching romcom clichés – picture perfect locations, boring, bed sheet-swamped sex scenes and sympathy-straining family plots mean it’s sterile and boringly predictable. Thank God for Woody Harrelsen, whose straight-talking gay co-worker frequently pops in to save us from the sop with a well-timed crack or a sentiment-free nugget of wacky wisdom. In the end, Friends With Benefits may think it’s better than most romantic comedies, but it isn’t fooling anyone. 2/5

Mila Kunis – "It’s a fucking movie, it’s not like I’m saving the world"

“There’s stuff. I just don’t know if I can talk about it. Yes, there’s stuff.” Mila Kunis is discussing Denzel Washington. We want to know if she witnessed any of the acting goliath’s behind-the-scenes ticks or tricks while shooting apoco-flick Book of Eli. Kunis is having none of it. “That’s something you should ask him. I’m not in a position to answer. It’s kind of brilliant; the beauty of watching people work is that everyone’s different. Everybody’s different.”

Damn. Like most industry bods who have been in the game a while, Kunis knows that privacy has a currency. Something hard earned and much valued. Curled up in a swish Los Angeles hotel on a relatively mild December morning, the 26-year-old is every bit as vivacious and sharp as any one of her on-screen personas might have implied. She’s tiny (just 5ft 4), smart in black, skinny but fit – her newly-toned physique the result of months spent training hard as a ballerina for the currently-shooting Black Swan.

“I just skipped about 10 years of ballerina training and started [learning] as if I’m a professional,” the actress laughs. “Every day I tore the ligaments in my calves and I would think, ‘What am I doing to myself?’”

Tough, then, too. Most recognisable as bratty Jackie from timewarp TV comedy That ‘70s Show, for which she served a mighty eight seasons’ worth of duty, Kunis is already big business Stateside, adored by the TV-loving teen gen (nominations and wins of various Teen Choice Awards prove it). Her first notable post-sitcom role revealed her as the best thing in 2008’s hit-and-misfire video game adap Max Payne, for which she underwent rigorous gun training, rough and tumbling with the best of them. But Kunis remains relatively unheard of on British shores.

Those tides are set to change in 2010, though, as three hefty flicks – the aforementioned Eli and Black Swan, and Tina Fey vehicle Date Night – look primed to send Kunis’ stock soaring into the stratosphere.

Which perhaps accounts for the actress’ tight-lipped privacy lockdown. Rumours abound that Kunis, a native of Russia, learnt English from watching game show The New Price is Right (not true), is engaged to Macaulay Culkin (half true, they’re not engaged, but they’ve been dating since 2002), and has different-coloured eyes (true; one blue, the other green). Meanwhile, the industry is very much sitting up and taking note of the dark beauty. Darren Aronofksy heaps praise on her for “making the screen sizzle”, while Jason Segal credits Kunis for ensuring he “look like a good writer” with her small yet pivotal role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

So who is the real Mila? Born Milena Markivna Kunis in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, she is the only daughter to a mechanic father and a teacher mother, and sister to a scientist brother. Fluent in the Russian tongue, she counts it as her first language, which perhaps explains her rapid-fire speech pattern. “This is actually me slow,” she goads during our chat.

It wasn’t until she was seven that the Kunis clan uprooted to sunny Los Angeles (“I was told we were moving down the street. We didn’t move down the street. I don’t remember much”), escaping a constrictive Russia that abhorred their Jewish leanings.

Hold up. A Jewish girl starring in the very biblical, blockbusting Book of Eli? “That’s a question I’m going to get a lot, isn’t it?” the actress laughs. A bleached, post-apocalyptic fable, Eli pitches Denzel Washington’s titular crusader against a world turned upside down and then some. “I attempted to read the bible for this movie. I didn’t get very far into it,” shrugs Kunis. “It has amazing stories and I think that the beauty of it is that it’s all actually just about right and wrong.”

Playing Solara, a rape victim awed by Eli’s lone crusader, Kunis explains: “This girl’s not necessarily tough. She’s perseverant and she’s driven, but she’s not tough. She’s not wearing leather pants and shooting machine guns. She’s just a woman with a purpose.” She also gets to sport some pretty nifty shades. Not that Kunis considers herself much of a fashionista. “I’m learning,” she says. “I’m being forced to be a fashionista, because apparently wearing sweat pants to do press junkets is not appropriate. I really do love fashion. I personally haven’t figured all of it out yet.”

Fashion aside, did Kunis find the harrowing material – in particular the rape angle – difficult to handle? “Please don’t quote me as saying, ‘Rape is fun’, I beg of you,” the actress begins. “But it was just one of those days where it was great. It’s fun because it’s safe; I’m surrounded by a hundred person crew.”

Still tough, then. It obviously takes a lot to phase the young performer. Quick to laugh, she’s an adaptable spirit – a Russian princess who left for warmer climes and undeniably made good. She got into acting aged nine because “it was truly just fun”, nabbed her role on That ‘70s Show by lying about her age (she was 14, they needed her to be 18), missed her prom thanks to scheduling conflicts, and can’t believe her luck at landing a gig like Family Guy, for which she voices bitter teen Meg (“It’s easier. Whatever you think it is, it’s easier. Absolutely. It’s silly how easy it is”).

Frankly, we should hate her. But Kunis is impossible to deride. An unapologetic cyber-geek, she’s a giant World of Warcraft fan, loves Aerosmith, and cites Dirty Dancing as her favourite movie – just like any other twenty-something chica in the Western hemisphere.

Ah, dancing. How about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan? Details are tightly under wrap (“I feel like such a douche because I can’t talk about it. It’s not even that big of a deal. It’s a fucking movie. It’s not like I’m saving the world”), but we know it’s a New York-set psych-thriller in which Kunis plays ballet dancer Lilly, rival to Natalie Portman’s Nina. Ever-more whispers imply the two share – gasp! – a lesbian smooch.

Kunis is unimpressed. “Sure, it’s two girls making out, and guys have a thing for that,” she yawns. “And Nat is like every guy’s dream. She’s a nerd’s idea of heaven. The whole thing is silly, but I can see why people care.”

So, 2010, the Year of Mila. But what next? More movies? College? “I will one day. One day. I wanted to. It’s just, what was I going to do: college or have a career? I chose a career from an early age. Who’s to say I made the right decision. I don’t know. Time will tell.”

Via Total Film