(Welcome to Seeing Double, a series where two strangely similar films released around the same time are put head-to-head. This time, we’re letting love take the wheel in honor of Valentine’s Day and looking at a pair of movie twins about sex, love, and the futility of denying your feelings.)
Every week is “Love” week here at /Film, but in the spirit of Valentine’s Day this edition of Seeing Double is focusing on the most American representation of love possible – the romantic comedy. Some say it’s the most honest film genre there is while others call it poppycock of the heart, but there’s no denying the popularity of funny movies about love. Audiences and Hollywood alike just love seeing characters laugh and kiss their way to a happy ending.
2011 saw two high-profile rom-coms hit theater screens just six months apart, both centered on an identical premise, and both starring a cast member from Black Swan and That ’70s Show. Sounds crazy doesn’t it? Impossible to believe even? But it’s true, I swear. As insane as it sounds, though, there’s an even bigger mystery surrounding No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits. In the seven years since their release, no one’s ever felt 100% confident identifying which romantic pairing of popular young actors is in which film without a quick IMDB search.
That confusion ends now. Keep reading as we put No Strings Attached and Friends Without Benefits head-to-head and end this madness once and for all.
Two attractive young people meet, become vaguely friendly, and have some of the sex. Neither he nor she want anything to do with a relationship – too much hassle, too much risk of heartbreak – and instead they’re struck with inspiration. Why marry the milk when you can bump uglies with the cow for free? For those of you unfamiliar with that very common saying, the acquaintances-turned-friends in both films decide to have fun fornicating without the complication of emotions, jealousies, and other dramas that come with relationships. Love has other plans, though, and try as they might, their hearts start getting in the way of their genitals.
No Strings Attached had a escort Rochester comedy legend in the director’s chair in the form of Jason Reitman’s dad, Ivan Reitman. His directing credits are overflowing with big American comedy hits you might recognize, including Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Dave, and more. That’s a hell of a resume, especially if you conveniently forget that he also directed Father’s Day and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Writer Elizabeth Meriwether wasn’t much of a name at the time, but she followed the film by creating Fox’s New Girl.
Friends With Benefits doesn’t quite have the same cache, then or now, and Will Gluck came to the film having only directed two previous feature films – Fired Up! which nobody saw, and Easy A, which everyone loves. His name is more fun to say, though, so he has that going for him. Surprisingly, especially for a film that adds very little to its one-note premise, there are three writers attributed to its script. Gluck was joined by newcomers Keith Merryman & David A. Newman, who’ve since gone on to write Think Like a Man and its sequel.
No Strings Attached stars Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman and Punk’d creator Ashton Kutcher as bang buddies, and while it feels like a step down for the former, the pair manage a chemistry that works to land the film’s playful moments and more serious beats. Their fun and emotional pairing is both convincing and entertaining. The supporting cast is filled out with more recognizable faces who bring the laughs, including Kevin Kline, Mindy Kaling, Jake Johnson, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, and Greta Gerwig. They deliver the script’s numerous jokes and funny lines as brilliantly as you’d expect.
Friends With Benefits features Mila Kunis bouncing off Justin Timberlake, and while both are likable performers they feel exactly that – like they’re performing. Every line’s a punchline, and at no point do their performances feel like they’re coming from the heart. A lack of chemistry between them follows, and there’s no real assist from the supporting cast (including Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, and Richard Jenkins) who simply flail with this material.
Advantage: As mentioned in the intro, the two films star actors from That ’70s Show and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and No Strings Attached got the better of that deal on both counts.
Neither film was necessarily beloved by critics upon release, but per Rotten Tomatoes, only one of them is considered “fresh.” No Strings Attached is not that one as it currently sits at 49% on the aggregator site with an almost identical audience score of 51%. By contrast, Friends With Benefits makes it past the hump with a 69% – pause for snickers – from critics and 65% from audiences.
Advantage: This one’s a bit inexplicable to me, but it’s a numbers category, and the numbers favor Friends With Benefits by a healthy margin.
Budget and Box-Office
Reitman and friends brought No Strings Attached in for $25 million plus marketing and collected $149m worldwide, and Friends With Benefits cost $10m more while earning nearly the same $150m around the world. The Portman/Kutcher pairing did noticeably better domestically, though, earning $71m to Kunis/Timberlake’s $56m.
Advantage: Their box-office take is pretty much identical, but No Strings Attached wins the category as it cost almost a third less to produce.
I watched both films upon release back in 2011 and re-watched them for the first time this week because I’m a damn professional. Neither is all that memorable, and two watches is probably two watches too many, but seeing them back-to-back makes their respective strengths and weaknesses far more visible. No Strings Attached is legitimately funny, and while Portman feels occasionally too refined for the lowbrow humor, she still finds laughs. The cast as a whole makes the most of their dialogue, and while we know the couple will end up together, the journey there is engaging enough through their ups and downs. Friends With Benefits has none of that. It’s loud, obvious, and played too broad for the emotions to take hold.
But in the spirit of love I’ll end on a positive note for both – have enough to drink and you probably can’t go wrong watching either couple fool around and talk dirty for 108 minutes.