By Steve Persall
My colleague Sean Daly kicked the hornet's nest a couple of years ago, proclaiming multitalented Justin Timberlake to be the next Frank Sinatra. You might have thought Daly said Timberlake is the next Jesus, as fierce on the debate's dissenting side as the responses were, mine included.
Since then, I've drifted to agreement. Everything Timberlake attempts — with one exception we'll get into — turns out being something I can't imagine anyone at the time doing better. He's handsome in a heartland way, sings like nobody's business, builds businesses like nobody else, and handles both dramatic and comedic duties with easy flair.
Call it a man crush if you must, but watching Timberlake in action must be as electrifying as Ol' Blue Eyes in his prime. Times change, and game changers with them. Deal with it, or see Timberlake do it all to some degree in Friends With Benefits and be convinced.
You haven't seen this movie before, despite its thematic resemblance to No Strings Attached from earlier this year. Friends With Benefits is much smarter and smuttier, making a self-conscious attempt to rework the rom-com, although not as cleverly as (500) Days of Summer. Two impossibly attractive people decide to build a relationship around casual, constant sex, but we know that plan won't last.
Timberlake plays Dylan, a graphics designer in L.A. who's lured by a jobs headhunter named Jamie (spunky Mila Kunis) to work for GQ magazine in New York. The role makes good use of Timberlake's acting skills; self-effacing smart aleckness, a bit of hip-hop singing for comic effect, a touch of somber introspection and glimpses of his sexybackside.
It's a better fit than his recent turn in Bad Teacher — the misstep I mentioned — that set him up as a complete dork, which Timberlake is too cool to convince us of being. That's like trying to pass off Jonah Hill as an action hero. Dylan is a marked man, romantically speaking, but Timberlake never appears convinced of that, which is what this movie requires.
While the plot is conventional, its execution isn't. Sure, there are romantic intruders to contend with, wacky sidekicks to manage (Woody Harrelson has a ball spoofing stereotypes as a gay GQ sports editor) and a last-reel split between these incredibly compatible lovers that must be mended. But it works because Timberlake and Kunis are totally in control of their damaged characters without winking at the audience, as if to say: "Aren't we cute, behaving so naughty?"
Their sex is amusingly awkward, and their repressed longings more so. It's the kind of chemistry that comes along once in a generation; Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan had it most recently. And it's perfect for now, with iPads, flash mobs and a ironic eye for rom-com cliches. But there was one moment during a screening of Friends With Benefits that proved the timelessness of Timberlake's appeal.
Dylan and Jamie are nudging toward revealing more than sexual interest in each other. They begin pingponging compliments with screwball velocity, starting with his attraction to her saucer eyes. Back and forth they go, then he mentions her eyes again. "You already said that," Jamie says. Without missing a beat Dylan says: "I meant it."
Behind me, dozens of women in unison blurted a reflexive "Awwwww," ending on an up note, so you could tell it wasn't sarcastic. I haven't often heard such an audience response to a come-on line, or wished I could say anything to earn the same. Timberlake can do anything, even make women swoon without singing a note. I'll bet Sinatra would be impressed.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.