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Back To Back: No Strings Attached & Friends With Benefits

Introducing Back to Back, an analysis of two movies that seem the same. In this edition: No Strings Attached versus Friends With Benefits.

Back To Back: No Strings Attached & Friends With Benefits

Hey guys! Meredith from Badass Digest here! Welcome to a new feature I'll cover periodically at FYA, wherein I'll watch two related movies back to back and get all judgey with it. First up! No Strings Attached (January 2011) and Friends With Benefits (July 2011). I watched both of these movies for the first time Saturday night, right on top of each other. Why would I do that, you might ask? Well, there was beer involved.

If you only look at the bare bones, No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits are essentially the same movie. Both films are about friends who decide to have pressure-free sex with each other, no relationship obligations allowed. Despite the characters' urgent protestations to the contrary (spoiler alert for anyone who has never seen a romantic comedy before!), both films result in love complicating all of the doin' it. Both films came out in 2011 and they both star the various-hued swans of Black Swan (Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis).

ETA: @bethanylgriff pointed something out that I cannot believe I didn't consider the first time around. Both movies also feature one half of the late, "great" Jackie/Kelso romance from That 70s Show. I always forget that show existed, even though I watched every episode of it.

Round One! The Basics.

Director: Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters and Meatballs fame. Not too shabby.

Writer: Elizabeth Meriweather, whoever she is. But she is a lady, and that's important for reasons on which I will elaborate in Round Five.

Rating: R. Obviously the best rating you can get. PG-13 is boring and NC-17 is gross.

Director: Will Gluck, of Easy A fame. Nice cred.

Writers: Gluck, Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and Harley Peyton. Yes. It took four writers to create this movie, never a good sign. Peyton, however, was a major writer on Twin Peaks, and that rules!

Rating: Also R, which means lots of Timberbutt. Pretty great.

Round One Winner: No Strings Attached!

Round Two! Cast Hotness Levels.

Natalie Portman is absolutely stunning. Her bone structure is gorgeous and she has the deepest, most beautiful eyes. Her bod's pretty rockin', too. Ashton Kutcher is pasty and lumpy and also he is a cheating perv.

Mila Kunis is a total babe, head to toe. Justin Timberlake's abs are sick as shit. Everybody is equally as hot as each other, just as God intended.Timberlake is almost definitely also a cheating perv, but he's not dumb enough to get caught at it yet.

Round Two Winner: Friends With Benefits!

Round Three! Cast Radness Levels.

Natalie Portman is a legit genius, super liberal and she seems really sweet. (+3)

Ashton Kutcher is the world's most unadulterated jackhole. (-2)

Ludacris! (+1)

Kevin Kline! (+2)

Mindy Kaling!!! (+2)

Cary Elwes! (+1)

Olivia Thirlby, the adorably sassy friend from Juno. (+1)

Greta Gerwig, the totally kick-ass and snarky bestie from The House of the Devil. (+1)

Lake Bell, so very awesome in Children's Hospital. (+1)

Total Cast Radness Score = 10

Mila Kunis seems like a blast, and she is so incredibly cute. (+1)

Justin Timberlake, c'mon. (+1)

Emma Stone!!! (+2)

Woody Harrelson!!! (+2)

Patricia Clarkson!!! (+2)

Jenna Elfman, random, but really cute in this movie (+1)

Luke from Modern Family, squee! (+1)

Total Cast Radness Score = 10

Round Three: It's a Draw!

Round Four: Squee Scale.

Wow. I cannot believe how emphatically I squeed at No Strings Attached. Despite the fact that I loathe Ashton Kutcher with every fiber of my soul, he had me convinced, for 108 minutes, that he's a charming, good-hearted sweetie who is entirely deserving of Natalie Portman's general awesomeness. I know! I know. But you guys--HE MADE HER A PERIOD MIX. She told him to stay away because she was on the rag, and he came over anyway, bearing a hilarious CD with songs like Pearl Jam's "Even Flow," UB40's "Red Red Wine" and Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love." He brought her and her roommates Crave cupcakes and cuddled her until she felt better. I know it sounds weird and clingy, but it isn't. It's light and funny and cute. He is so totally unafraid of menses! Against all evidence to the contrary, if Trucker Hat can briefly convince me that he's a good person, he must be a much better actor than we all thought. That's probably how he convinced poor Demi that she could trust him.

These two were so overwhelmingly sweet and lovely together in the movie, in a very realistic, honest way. And you should know that I am generally not a fan of romantic comedies. I bear up very well against manufactured romance, but No Strings Attached slayed me.

I didn't really squee at Friends With Benefits. I laughed some, and I definitely lusted some, but I did not squee. Timberlake and Kunis have majorly smoking chemistry, but I was never convinced that they were in love. They actually sell being great friends who have great sex, but they do not sell romance.

Round Four Winner: No Strings Attached!

Round Five: Feminist Friendly?

This is where the fact that No Strings Attached is written by a woman really makes a difference. NSA is that rare film that is never frustrating or disheartening to watch as a feminist. First--and I must also give credit to FWB here--neither female protagonist works in media. Not that there's anything wrong with working in media--I do--but why must EVERY woman in a romantic comedy either work in media (television, publishing, film, etc) or be an elementary school teacher? Why? There are so many occupations out there! Portman's Emma is a doctor. Adam's the one who works in media, on a High School Musical-like television show. It's a subtle point that makes a difference to me.

Emma has tons of female friends (Greta Gerwig! Mindy Kaling!) who are all hilarious and supportive. She has a wonderful relationship with her sister (Olivia Thirlby), and her competition for Ashton's Adam is also a really cool, smart, nice woman (Lake Bell). Emma has some very relatable issues stemming from her dad's death, and Adam is patient and understanding as she learns to deal with them in a healthy way. NSA presents Emma in a strong, well-rounded, believable light. Also: PERIOD MIX.

Yikes. Round Five is where FWB starts to really fall behind. First: the good. Kunis' Jamie is a ball-busting corporate headhunter, definitely not a kindergarten teacher. And she has a great relationship with her mom (Patricia Clarkson). Of course, her mom is a total flaky crack whore, but I dug their relationship regardless. But man alive, I hate the way people talk about Jamie in this movie. She's constantly being referred to as "damaged," even by Timberlake's character Dylan. And she isn't! I mean, she fears commitment and she's a little insecure, but aren't we all? Everyone in Friends With Benefits, including Jamie, talks about Jamie like she's a massive, hopeless trainwreck. She has no female friends and men treat her like shit. Dylan completely disrespects her multiple times, and all he has to do is offer one big romantic gesture, and she's all his. It's really weird and gross.

Round Five Winner: No Strings Attached!

Round Six: Contributing Factors.

No Strings Attached is so enchantingly unpredictable. It's quirky in a grounded way that never annoys. Adam asks Emma out on Valentine's Day, to which she understandably hesitates. She finally agrees, if he promises not to bring her flowers. He brings her carrots. If that sounds corny, it isn't. It's adorable. Nothing in this movie quite works out the way we think it will; it resolves in a manner far more charming than we could ever predict.

Also, Kevin Kline! Adam's dad is a television star from an old program called Great Scott!. We know this because he's constantly shouting the catchphrase at anyone who will listen. "Great Scott!" He's a pothead and a space cadet and he starts dating Adam's ex-girlfriend with very few qualms. He's hilarious and weird and it's great to see Kevin Kline again.

MINDY KALING. Being her dry, adorable and absolutely wonderful self, although typically relegated to supporting best friend status.

Finally, PERIOD MIX.

Friends With Benefits has one running gag that I just love: Dylan is terrible at math. Like, 6 x 3=92 terrible. It comes up again and again and never failed to crack me up.

But, alas, the film loses whatever points it gained with that gag by making FLASH MOBS a crucial plot point in the movie. Flash mobs, you guys. Dylan and Jamie are always so entertained, so very delighted by these stupid fucking flash mobs. And of course (spoiler alert!), Dylan's too-little, too-late (for me) romantic gesture is to organize a giant flash mob for Jamie. It's SO STUPID.

FWB did something else I hate: the writers kept referring to romantic comedy tropes in this really nudge-y, wink-y way, as if to say "Look how different we are from other romantic comedies!" Dylan and Jamie kept watching this fictional movie with Jason Segel and Rashida Jones and making fun of the cliches, which then of course found their way into FWB in "clever," "ironic" ways. The funny thing is that No Strings Attached, which is legitimately unlike most cliched romantic comedies, did not need to rely on this crutch. That movie assumes the audience understands that it's original; FWB has to keep reminding us. I predicted about 80% of the plot points in Friends With Benefits, and that's no good.

Order of the Day:

No Strings Attached is the clear winner here. I actually liked Friends With Benefits, but I'm really glad I watched it first. Should you decide to watch both movies back to back, I recommend doing the same. There's no way FWB could fail to disappoint after the warm, honest, refreshingly original spirit of No Strings Attached.

 

Holla back at me! Do you agree with my verdict? What movies would you like to see get the Back To Back treatment in the future?

Meredith Borders's photo About the Author: Meredith is the managing editor of Badass Digest, Fantastic Fest, The Alamo Drafthouse and Birth.Movies.Death. She's shorter than you might think.
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