Looking for something to watch with my wife (no thrillers or action movies) I stumbled on Friends With Benefits on Netflix streaming and read that audiences and critics had liked it much more than its studio lookalike movie, No Strings Attached, which I have completely forgotten even though we watched it no more than 6 weeks ago. Friends With Benefits is better. Much better. Thirty minutes in, though I found myself engaged, I was surprised to see that the wonderful Richard Jenkins was in the cast. I wondered to myself why he had allowed himself to be in this negligible film. Then the plot got a bit more complicated. The internal issues of the protagonist, played by Justin Timberlake, were well delineated and palpable. Timberlake’s conflicts with his love interest, Mila Kunis, functioned well in the context of the story. But I still couldn’t figure out why Richard Jenkins was there playing this innocuous role of Timberlake’s father – who has Alzheimer’s Disease. I didn’t see the signal of a subplot and that may have been the beauty of it.

Ultimately, Richard Jenkins delivered a speech with a message in the third act which brought home the protagonist’s internal conflict very well. It also gave the father character stature, depth and some unexpected back story of his own. The justification for Richard Jenkins’ presence in the film was delivered excellently, on point, moving, highly effective. That subplot enhanced and almost super-charged the narrative.

I watched another Netflix streamer, Down to the Bone, with the wonderful Vera Farmiga. After re-watching The Departed and Up In the Air, I was curious about her earlier roles. Farmiga won a Best Actress award at Sundance for Down to the Bone and she is great in the film. The screenplay is narrowly focused on the protagonist. The film keys to the isolation of this main character. Subplot is minimal if non-existent. The film concludes on a sign of hope for the protagonist, but there is no sign post to redemption or happiness. The resolution is still evocative and effective, true to the nature of struggles with addiction. Because the life of Farmiga’s character touched so many others in the film, it is interesting to speculate whether some embellishment to secondary characters, a slightly more structured approach to their narratives, (her friend, husband, children) could have amplified the story, provided more insight into the film’s concerns. As it stands, Down to the Bone is a fascinating character study. It could have been a great film rather than just a good one. Appropriate subplot might have made the difference here. Maybe not. Thoughts, anyone?


Tuesdays with Tom Benedek: “Subplots With Benefits”.


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