— “Friends With Benefits” features beautiful people getting frisky, but that’s not the only reason to watch it. If the romantic comedy clicks, it could redefine Mila Kunis as a major movie star. She shares top billing with Justin Timberlake, making this the first movie where she’s the main attraction. But does the young actress have what it takes to join the A-list?
“Sure, why not?” said Adam B. Vary, staff editor at Entertainment Weekly. “The entire notion of what it means to be an ‘above the title star’ has been pretty much upended in Hollywood in the past decade: Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts can’t open a movie together, but Kristin Wiig, an ‘SNL’ star with almost no film credits to her name, headlined ‘Bridesmaids,’ one of the biggest success stories of the summer.”
It's not like Kunis is coming from nowhere. She starred for eight seasons on the sitcom “That '70s Show,” playing the spoiled-yet-charming Jackie Burkhart, and she was praised for smaller roles in comedies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” And late last year, she played Lily, the darkly seductive ballerina who torments Natalie Portman in the surprise blockbuster “Black Swan.” That movie earned Kunis newfound respect and serious Oscar buzz. Add it all up and you could have a very bankable star.
The geeky, good-time girl
It helps that Kunis has a unique appeal. “She clearly has a great deal of sexual allure, but she also seems like a girl who is a great deal of fun, like someone who is game for an adventure,” said Rachel Rusch, a television development executive in Los Angeles. “Being friends-with-benefits in a movie with Justin Timberlake is just another demonstration that she’s not going to be the girl to judge or put the brakes on a good time. She’s up for anything, and she’s going to enjoy herself doing it.”
Her fans see her the same way. Geeks across the universe rejoiced when she announced that she loves the online game “World of Warcraft,” and fan sites praise her for being down to earth. Lillian Mitchell, who with Nicole Stevens co-founded the U.K. site MilaKunisWeb.org, said, “I most enjoy her sense of humor. She’s so funny, and I admire that she don’t have to make herself visible by scandals.”
These qualities could make “Friends With Benefits” a hit. “What’s important in a romantic comedy is that the actors have chemistry, and that’s where casting Kunis makes sense,” said Scott Tobias, film editor of The A.V. Club. “She’s proven she has the charisma and allure to pair up with anybody, from Natalie Portman to Jason Segel.”
Many praise Kunis for being as talented as she is likable. “You never catch her acting,” said Tobias, citing her performance as Lily. “Though Portman got all the accolades for her dramatic transformation in ‘Black Swan,' Kunis is the unacknowledged linchpin of that movie. She’s the one who draws out Portman’s deeply repressed dark side and gives the film the fevered, reckless energy it wants to carry across. It’s the sort of subtle performance that never wins awards, but it’s much harder than it looks.”
That demonstrates enormous growth from Kunis' sitcom days. Rusch said, “The nature of a sitcom necessitates that the actor is playing a type as much as a character, and while Jackie [on ‘That '70s Show’] was lovable, she was mainly the sum of her quirks. In the time since the show, Mila Kunis has taken more roles where she is in on the joke, where she gets to be more slyly playful.”
The size of those roles has been important, too. You could argue that until now, Kunis wasn’t ready to drive a movie like “Friends With Benefits.”
“Some TV stars aim too high when they make the crossover,” said Nathaniel Rogers, editor of the TheFilmExperience.net. “But she smartly chose flattering supporting roles like her sweet hotel clerk in ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ or the stripper-wife in ‘Date Night.’ ”
Discussing her talent, he added, “She's been on a smooth upward slope for years, but was her head-turning work in ‘Black Swan’ the peak, or will it unlock new possibilities for her as a star actress?”
That’s a fair question: Since she can be dark and intense, funny and charming, or goofy and cool, it’s difficult to predict what kind of star Kunis will become, and her upcoming projects seem to cover all the bases. Later this year, she’ll appear in the latest Muppet movie; next year, she’ll star in “Ted,” about a man whose childhood teddy bear comes to life; and in 2013 she’s slated to star in “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” a “Wizard of Oz” prequel that finds her playing a good witch gone bad.
Meanwhile, there’s no consensus about which path she should follow.
“She’d be smart to try an eye-catching villain,” argued Rogers. “Wouldn’t she be a thrilling sight speaking Russian in the ensemble of a ‘Mission: Impossible’ film or as a Bond girl?”
However, Nicole Stevens said, “I would love to see her again in some psycho movie like ‘Black Swan,’ but also I will miss ‘That '70s Show’ forever.’ ”
Meanwhile, Vary added, “If ‘Friends With Benefits’ is a success, and if she wants it, she could try to be the next Katherine Heigl, although Katherine Heigl could have something to say about that. But given her roles in ‘Book of Eli’ [a postapocalyptic action movie] and ‘Black Swan,’ it seems like she may want a more varied career [so she can be] the next Charlize Theron or Cameron Diaz.”
Vary continued, “The best next step for her could be to try to carry her own film, Katherine Heigl-style, but in a smart, R-rated, female-driven comedy that will finally get a greenlight now that ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Bad Teacher’ are hits.”
That wide variety of reactions could be the best indicator that Mila Kunis really does have what it takes to be a major movie star. When people can imagine an actress doing lots of different things, then she’s much more likely to have a diverse, interesting, and lengthy career.