'Friends With Benefits'

Glen Wilson/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis make for engaging leads in this unexpectedly fresh R-rated comedy.

Ashton and Natalie may have beaten them to the "just sex" punch line with No Strings Attached, but Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis do it better -- and more enjoyably -- in Friends With Benefits.

A crisply contemporary and notably grown-up romantic comedy directed and co-written by Easy A director Will Gluck, the bicoastal picture goes a long way in bringing sexy back to a soggy genre, benefiting greatly from the presence of its likable leads.

Not only do they handle the tart banter with an assured, playful give-and-take, but -- surprise, surprise -- they also manage to exhibit a very rare big-screen quality: There's actually a palpable chemistry between them.

Although the postmodern vehicle ultimately proves guilty of adhering too closely to those very same tired rom-com conventions at which it satirically pokes fun, its fresh-faced, attractive leads inject it with a winning vitality.

That vibe should help audiences brush aside the initial sensation of deja vu and make this Screen Gems release an attractive proposition in its own right.

Immediately establishing a brisk pace suited to a film set in New York and Los Angeles, Gluck dispenses with any creaky plot mechanics that will slow down the business at hand: bringing together hot-shot L.A.-based media art director Dylan (Timberlake) and Manhattan-based corporate headhunter Jamie (Kunis).

Not only does adventurous Jamie manage to persuade him to relocate to the East Coast for a dream gig calling the shots at GQ, they find themselves jumping into each other's arms, among other various body parts, even though both still are smarting from recently terminated relationships.

Despite Jamie and Dylan's mutual declaration to maintain a strictly physical relationship, darned if those pesky emotions don't manage to creep their way into the best-laid plans.

Working from Keith Merryman and David Newman's sharply observed, casually au courant script to which he contributed, Gluck clearly had vintage Hepburn-Tracy sophisticated comedy in the back of his head while working out the style and tempo of the production.

He also mines healthy -- and well-deserved -- laughs from making fun of the current state of studio romantic comedies with a mock film-within-the-film featuring an unbilled Jason Segel and Rashida Jones along with virtually every rom-com cliché under the sun.

But Gluck also succumbs to many of those same trappings as the film progresses, including the staging of not one but two choreographed flash mob sequences -- a YouTube phenomenon that already felt past its prime when Howie Mandel hosted a hidden-camera special in March.

The hypocritical element aside, Gluck not only draws terrific performances from Kunis and Timberlake (fresh from their respective career-best turns in Black Swan and The Social Network) but from a crack supporting cast.

Woody Harrelson steals his handful of scenes as Timberlake's office colleague -- a gung-ho, gay man's man -- while the ever-reliable Patricia Clarkson shines as Kunis' hazy-around-the-edges, aging '70s groupie of a mom. Jenna Elfman puts in an effective turn as Timberlake's world-weary big sister.

Release date Friday, July 22 (Screen Gems)
Cast Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman
Director Will Gluck
Screenwriters Keith Merryman, David Newman, Will Gluck
Producers Will Gluck, Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, Jerry Zucker, Janet Zucker
Rated R, 109 minutes