What ‘Friends With Benefits’ Owes to ‘Seinfeld’
In a classic 1991 Seinfeld episode entitled, “The Deal,” Jerry and Elaine decide to bring sex back into their relationship, taking careful measures not to jeopardize their friendship.
This plot should sound familiar, in light of a recently released romantic comedy, starring Justine Timberlake and Mila Kunis. Or perhaps it is reminiscent of Friends With Benefits‘ decidedly less enticing forerunner, No Strings Attached, starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. That’s because these films are 1 hour and 40 minute elaborations of a 20 year-old, 20 minute-sitcom episode.
Here’s the Friends With Benefits version: “No relationships. No emotions. Just sex. Whatever happens, we stay friends.” Here’s the Seinfeld version: “The idea is to combine the ‘this’ and the ‘that.’ But ‘this’ cannot be disturbed.” All four characters try to convince themselves that sex is just a physical act. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it’s just like tennis; it’s almost stupid if they don’t, etc.
This similarity has already been recognized by a smattering of articles and YouTube videos. But there is one key item that no one has yet cared to mention: Friends With Benefits makes two direct references to the famous 90′s TV show – in a manner that is not all too positive and actually quite hypocritical.
When Jamie (Kunis), a head hunter, lands Dylan (Timberlake) a job as Art Director at GQ, she takes it upon herself to show him a good time during his first night in New York.
Jamie: It’s New York! / Dylan: I’ve seen Seinfeld. / Jamie: Not the bullshit tourist version.
First of all, I have seen many a romantic comedy and television show that glorify New York (Sex and The City, Hitch, Gossip Girl, that episode of Glee, the upcoming New Year’s Eve movie) and I would not count Seinfeld among them.
Meanwhile, back in movie-land, Jamie takes Dylan to “her mountaintop” by illegally accessing the roof of a skyscraper directly across from the Empire State Building. A sufficiently impressed Dylan admits, “Ok, this was not on Seinfeld.” Of course it wasn’t! Because the characters on Seinfeld ride the subway, live in relatively modest apartments (I understand they had to fit on a soundstage), and dine at nameless, neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants.
In Friends With Benefits, the characters ride shiny yellow cabs, find themselves in the middle of Times Square flash mobs, run into Shaun White at an open bar under the Brooklyn Bridge on a clear night, and live in ridiculously giant apartments. That’s cool and all to be twenty-somethings and have those jobs in this economy, but you still do not live in Jay-Z’s penthouse.
While Friends with Benefits did present a witty take on the romantic comedy genre, the film couldn’t escape the all-too-common cinematic need to glorify New York City. I’m not sure what the motive was here on the parts of writers Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, and Will Gluck. Perhaps they were engaging in self-mockery and in a twisted way, actually acknowledging how much their film glorified the city, but it came off seeming hypocritical.
This brings up additional trends pioneered by Seinfeld, which Friends with Benefits exploited: self-effacement and meta references.
The hysterical rom-com within a rom-com, “starring” Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, becomes the counterpoint to Friends With Benefits. It is set in New York but filmed in L.A. (complete with palm trees framing “Grand Central Station”) and provides some cheesy excuse for a happily-ever-after relationship between two seemingly quirky, but actually stereotypical characters.
The meta-film ends with a painfully redundant track of “Hey Soul Sister,” which Dylan mocks by commenting on how films always play a cheesy song during the credits to make you think that you had a fantastic time at a crappy movie.
Additionally, while at the open bar (somewhere around Shaun White’s entrance), Dylan asks: “Why do women think they have to manipulate men?” to which Jamie replies, “History, personal experience…romantic comedies.” Cue snare and symbol.
This is not to say that there weren’t a lot of things the film did well, because there were: the apropos inclusion of technology (they swore on a Bible app – brilliant); Jamie’s New York elitist attitude; a female character who is as quirky and powerful as the male (if not more so); Woody Harrelson as the George Costanza equivalent. And the chemistry between Kunis and Timberlake makes the film utterly enjoyable to watch.
But Friends With Benefits still fits into the category of that typical rom-com it likes to mock, so the two emotionally damaged characters are destined to fall in love no matter how hard they try to deny it. As anticipated, the path to the resolution of the film is underscored by “Hey Soul Sister” only after the kiss-and-make-up scene in the real Grand Central Station (not a cardboard box version).
Of course, this is something that the writers of Seinfeld would never have had to worry about. Because Seinfeld wouldn’t film a charade involving hundreds of people in a location as tourist-y as Grand Central, their characters are curiously impervious to love, and any scene transition would be lightly escorted by bass synthesizer riffs, pops, clicks, and mouth noises.
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