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War of the Sex Friends

Five years on, checking in with the winners and losers of ‘No Strings Attached’ and ‘Friends With Benefits’

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

It’s been five years since the releases of No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits, and it’s hard to believe so much time has passed. Sometimes it can be hard to believe it wasn’t yesterday. Other times, when it’s really late, and the stars have grown dim and the moon is just a stack of studio memos with the subject line “Making Ashton Kutcher Happen (FINAL VERSION),” it can be hard to believe anything at all. But it’s been five years — of this I’m certain. The friends: They fucked. And now we are left to pick up the pieces.

The front lines of the No Strings vs. Friends With War were truly for the savage at heart: families upended; homes broken; relationships strained if not torn. Innocent tweets were drafted daily. Takes were heated just to feel something. People you thought you knew copped to That ’70s Show completism. Darren Aronofsky was relevant or worse. It was wartime, pure and simple, and lawlessness reigned. Two movies about platonic sex dropped in the span of six months — a lot of really good opinions died out there.

Who won the war? Well, it’s complicated. No Strings Attached grossed $71 million (on a $25 million budget) … while Friends With Benefits grossed $56 million (on a $35 million budget). No Strings Attached scored a 49 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (and a 50 percent on Metacritic) … while Friends With Benefits scored a 70 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (and a 63 percent on Metacritic). In some ways there is just no telling.

They say that history is written by the winners, and maybe that’s true. But you know what else they say about winners: They don’t have websites, so if it’s cool I’m going to do it.

Here are the winners and losers of No Strings Attached vs. Friends With Benefits:

Winner: Liz Meriwether (Screenwriter, ‘No Strings Attached’)

Might as well get this out of the way: I like No Strings Attached more. Actually, a lot more. It was the better movie then; it’s the better movie now. And while this holds true for a variety of reasons, the gap opens first at their scripts.

The Friends With Benefits script is uncomfortable in its own skin, and seemingly by design. The film wants desperately to be an “anti”-rom-com — and engineers its comedy from this position. Take the scene where Mila Kunis’s Jamie sees a poster for Katherine Heigl’s The Ugly Truth — 2011! Good grief — and yells, “Shut up, Katherine Heigl.” Take another scene where Justin Timberlake’s Dylan rants about how romantic comedies use pop-music cues to lull you into … something something.

By the end of these scenes you’re checking your watch.

They’re punkish, in their way — but the problem with this version of punk is that it doesn’t even know it’s conservative: At this point there might be more post-rom-com rom-coms than there are standard-issue ones. Which doesn’t make Friends With Benefits bad … only at odds with a borrowed anarchy. Friends With Benefits is that guy you know who wears a couple of Urban Outfitters pins while trading derivatives. It’s a Tyler Durden tattoo for your 15th wedding anniversary. It’s a dog walking a dog.

Meriwether’s No Strings script has a bit of a legendary origin story: from “edgy” writer’s draft to “watered-down” studio edit. And yet it’s the rare case of a script with the integrity to take on that water. It has a strong foundation, and knows what it isn’t: No Strings Attached doesn’t want to be your parents’ rom-com — but it still, at its core, wants to be someone’s. And that makes all the difference. (Oh and it’s really funny.)

Loser: 2011

Wait: 2011 seems awful. I honestly can’t believe people lived like that. Flash mobs — are you kidding me? Texting??? Jesus Christ. Ivan Reitman directing buzzy screenplays? Shaun White playing himself? Greta Gerwig as Just The Friend? Borderline explicit “Third Eye Blind wasn’t memorable” vibes? “New York vs. L.A.” small talk? Soft-relaunch second-wave relaxed-fit cardigans? The cast of Modern Family getting movie looks? 3D glasses jokes? Light homophobia? Swearing? Red velvet? CDs? Blogs? CARS? Get the fuck out of here. What a disgusting year.

Winner: Natalie Portman (‘No Strings Attached’)

The first quarter of 2011 was Natalie Portman’s peak by almost any measure: winning a Golden Globe for Black Swan in mid-January; No Strings Attached debuting at no. 1 in late January, then blossoming into a full-on hit through February; and winning her first Oscar for Black Swan in late February. Not bad. And yet the “line” on her career is that it tails off at this point — that Natalie Portman is on some list of Best Actresses who won and then were never the same.

Nah.

Just: Nah. If you’ve heard that Natalie Portman fell off, then I’m sorry: You’ve received bad information. It’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong. But “Natalie Portman fell off” … is a myth. “Natalie Portman fell off” is a con to get you to go to sleep. “Natalie Portman fell off” is a pyramid scheme of the world’s worst opinions — an elaborate scam invented to short-sell IMDb page views. In the wrong hands, “Natalie Portman fell off” could be dangerous. So please, I’m begging you, don’t get played.

Here — #FactsOnly edition — is Natalie Portman’s CV since Black Swan: No Strings Attached (romantic and dope); Your Highness (romantic and dope); Thor (romantic and dope); Thor: The Dark World (pretty good movie about email); married a hot ballet dancer (romantic and dope); swatted Jonathan Safran Foer’s alleged attempted free throw–line dunk of the heart into the second row (romantic and dope); Terrence Malick Presents Christian Bale in Crying Jordan Dick (absolved); Jane Got a Gun (Jane gets a gun); Weightless (pre-iconic); Jackie (post-iconic and unabsolved and romantic and dope). And that’s really it. Thank you, the end.

Friends: Let us rejoice under the sunbeams of our arguably pending fortune. Natalie Portman is halfway through a flawless decade. She is, right now, the best she’s ever been.

Loser: Emma Stone (‘Friends With Benefits’)

It’s 2016 and Emma Stone isn’t so famous that you put on Friends With Benefits and think, “Holy shit, Emma Stone is in this?” I love Emma Stone a lot. That’s an L.

Winner: Mila Kunis (‘Friends With Benefits’)

Loser: Ashton Kutcher (‘No Strings Attached’)

I like to think of lead rom-com performances from within the loose perspective of a genre-approval matrix. There is Generic Good: an actor who works between the lines of what we might consider “classical rom-com” and makes magic out of it. Think Will Smith in Hitch. There is Generic Bad: an actor who works between those same lines to his or her (and the film’s) detriment. Think Kate Hudson in Bride Wars. There is Advanced Good: an actor who pushes past rom-com convention toward something approaching transcendence. Think Jenny Slate in Obvious Child. And there is Advanced Bad: an actor who pushes past rom-com convention only to stray prohibitively from what the film has set out to achieve. Think Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer.

Justin Timberlake’s old band made an album called No Strings Attached. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis played death rivals in Black Swan. Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher are IRL MARRIED. But out of all of the oddities represented by the No Strings vs. Friends With War, perhaps none makes as much sense (which is to say: no sense) as the films placing a performance in each quadrant.

Loser: Friendship

Shouts to the old new economy etc. but this is on some true reckless conscience shit. I have no problem — I mean, I have whatever the opposite of a problem is — with a pair of movies about the same topic coming for each other in a given year. That’s healthy; I’m fine with it; shooters shoot. But even if only for the basic social good of it, wow: Could these two parties not have gotten together ahead of time, and hashed things out, and literally colluded so that both of their movies didn’t end with pairs of friends Throwing It All Away For Love???

Sorry to “get political,” but: Couldn’t the president or the Senate or the Supreme Court or one of those places have stepped in at this point? Like, I’m not sure what the Constitution says — but think about the lives that have been ruined: Presenting “sleeping with your friend” at a 100 percent success rate is like presenting “shooting heroin” at a 100 percent success rate. You wouldn’t do it. It’s reckless. Anyway, I love art! I’m just asking for a little ABSOLUTE GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT / censorship of it from time to time, i.e. when I want.

Winner: Greta Gerwig (‘No Strings Attached’)

Winner: Mindy Kaling (‘No Strings Attached’)

Winner: Jake Johnson (‘No Strings Attached’)

Winner: Ludacris (‘No Strings Attached’)

Winner: Lake Bell (‘No Strings Attached’)

The best parts of either movie, a five-year plan that should be taught in middle schools, and (from the assumptive non-perch of writing on the internet) a fairly crisp exercise in #getting #real #paid. Ws.

Loser: Justin Timberlake (‘Friends With Benefits’)

Justin Timberlake is bad in Friends With Benefits. There’s no way around it, and there’s probably no way to overstate it: He’s really bad. I’m not even sure why it doesn’t work. It seems like it should — with a premise like this one and a star like Timberlake’s. He looks great with his shirt off (which is half the battle in roles like these). He sort of has the eyes of a hostage but he’s otherwise “rom-com” handsome. The entire point of NSYNC was fucking your friends. What’s the problem?

I think … maybe he’s just a dork! Not meant even remotely as shots. Truly, god bless Justin Timberlake, Dork at Large: As one he came into this world, and as one he’ll leave. May his great-great-grandchildren inherit “terrible acoustic cover of ‘True Colors’ with Anna Kendrick at Cannes to promote DreamWorks Animation’s major motion picture Trolls” money and eat until they’re full. But there was a period of time during which Justin Timberlake felt — I really swear it — cool. Let’s go crazy and call that period the mid-to-late aughts: FutureSex/LoveSounds in ’06; “Dick in a Box” the same year; and all the way up through The Social Network in 2010.

Until: For whatever reason, in 2011, our man lost the plot. Friends With Benefits came and went, the crown jewel in an unofficial “well, Fincher likes him” trilogy — along with Matrix-knockoff (if the Matrix was an alarm clock that didn’t work) In Time and (I love Bad Teacher but as more of a God-bows-to-Diaz situation) Bad Teacher. And then in 2013 came [types furiously into old-fashioned microphone stand] The 20/20 Experience, which had a few moments (“Mirrors”? I’m trying) and was an important document insofar as no album had ever given America back its collective virginity before — but retrospectively was kind of a brick. 20/20 was three years ago and now we’re here.

As pure diagnosis, that seven-year gap between studio albums seems the most telling. Like: How do you put out a record with “My Love” on it — at 25 — and then chill for almost a full decade? Imagine Beyoncé taking off seven years after “Get Me Bodied.” You can’t, of course — because she would never have done it. She wanted to be great — to be Beyoncé — way too much. And Justin Timberlake might simply lack that gene.

Maybe Justin Timberlake, for all of his many talents, would really rather just be a handsome dork and hang out: Drop a loose single every now and then; take a supporting role when the timing is right; flip a few more years of talk show appearances into becoming half of America’s favorite rapper. Who could blame him? It’s a nice life. But it isn’t Going For It. And I don’t think he’ll go for it, in earnest, ever again. I just don’t think he has it in him — or at least not anymore. Justin Timberlake is … a dude named Justin now. He’s the fedora he wished to wear in the world.

And that’s the Timberlake who shows up in Friends With Benefits. He does his thing (GQ seems great???), and he doesn’t embarrass himself (like, really great???), and he raps that one song he knows (also his apartment is incredible??? I want to work for GQ), and it’s fine. But he’s not a leading man. The movie needs him to be … but he’s not. He’s finally not. Instead — and with much irony — he manages to portray the truest and benefits-havingest fuckbuddy possible: Just some guy, who peaked at 25, and wants to hang out.

Final Loser: ‘Friends With Benefits’

Final Winner: ‘No Strings Attached’