Thursday Trailer Face-Off: No Strings Attached vs. Friends With Benefits

Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against one another across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits, two films about attractive pairs of opposite-sex besties who test the limits of their friendships when things get physical.


Female Star Power
It has been noted that Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are leading weirdly parallel lives: Kunis played a sexy funhouse-mirror doppelgänger to Portman’s straitlaced ballerina in Black Swan, and now both are starring in movies with basically the same premise. But as much as we liked Kunis in Black Swan, and as much fun as we think she’d be to hang out with in real life, we’ve got to hand this one to Portman. She is indisputably the female movie star of the moment, with at least three high-profile films coming out in 2011 besides No Strings Attached (Thor, Your Highness, and The Other Woman); not to mention many Oscar pundits arguing that the Best Actress race this year is hers to lose. Her Yuletide announcement of her pregnancy and engagement to choreographer Benjamin Millepied didn’t hurt matters, either. Advantage: No Strings Attached

Male Star Power
As much as you may like Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter and/or Nikon commercials, we feel compelled to remind you that he has starred in some truly heinous films, like What Happens in Vegas, Killers, Valentine’s Day, Just Married, My Boss’s Daughter, and The Butterfly Effect, not a single one of which is currently pulling above a 33% on Rotten Tomatoes. Justin Timberlake has also been in some horrible films (Yogi Bear, The Love Guru), but he’s also coming off a well-reviewed role in 2010’s most-buzzed-about movie, The Social Network. Also, Timberlake is plainly more likable than Kutcher. This one’s easy. Advantage: Friends with Benefits

Supporting Cast
Tough call. We’re always happy to see the hilarious Mindy Kaling getting work, and she gets the first line in the No Strings Attached trailer. Cary Elwes, Lake Bell, Greta Gerwig, Olivia Thirlby, and Kevin Kline all make appearances in the film, as well. But Friends with Benefits features an equally impressive list of lovable side characters: Emma Stone, Rashida Jones, Woody Harrelson, Andy Samberg, and Patricia Clarkson as Kunis’s “cool mom.” (“So my daughter is just your slam piece?,” she demands of Timberlake.) Advantage: Draw

We loved Friends with Benefits director Will Gluck’s sassy teen comedy Easy A last year. But this is only his third feature film, whereas No Strings Attached‘s director Ivan Reitman is an Oscar-nominated Hollywood comedy staple; over the last four decades, he’s directed some truly beloved film comedies, including Dave, Meatballs, Stripes, and—come on now!—the Ghostbusters series.  Advantage: No Strings Attached

There’s more exposition in the No Strings Attached trailer, which leaves less time for jokes. (“I’m a doctor. I work eighty hours a week,” Portman informs Kutcher, although he’s supposed to be her oldest friend and would presumably know that already.) However, when we saw this trailer in theaters, Kutcher’s incredulous line, “You can’t fight me—you’re miniature! You fight like a hamster,” drew appreciative chuckles from the crowd. Friends with Benefits seems to be more confident that we understand the plot (and really, it’s not like it’s Inception), and is more free-wheeling with the jokes, which are genuinely funny. For example, Gluck parodies the unrealistic romantic-comedy trope of having characters spill their problems to children they know by enlisting a little girl to tell Kunis, “Stop talking to me about your life. I’m nine.” Refreshing! Advantage: Friends with Benefits

Pillow Talk
Kutcher and Portman’s mid-coitus exchange (“We’re having sex!” “I know!“) in the No Strings Attached trailer is pretty funny, but we’re afraid it’s nowhere near as funny as what happens when Kunis complains that casual sex feels too “college-y.” Timberlake announces, “I could sing some Third Eye Blind,” then launches into “Closing Time”—which is by Semisonic. It’s exactly the kind of late-’90s pop-culture mistake that people of their generation routinely make, and it’s very funny. Advantage: Friends with Benefits

Overall, No Strings Attached feels more like a formulaic Hollywood comedy; frankly, we’re sick of seeing the uptight-career-woman-needs-a-spontaneous-guy-to-show-her-how-to-love plotline played out in everything from Knocked Up to The Proposal to, um, Wall-E. But Friends with Benefits seems slightly less formulaic, and it also appears to benefit from the off-the-wall humor that made Gluck’s Easy A such a pleasant surprise last summer. Winner: Friends with Benefits