Director Ivan Reitman's last well-received hit was 1993's Dave. With Oscar-nominated Natalie Portman playing opposite frequent rom-com star Ashton Kutcher, says Kimberly Gadette, dare we hope that No Strings Attached will fly?
Sex sex sex sex. Echoed repeatedly throughout the painful rom-com No Strings Attached, the word is used almost like a hopeful incantation, as if by its mere repetition the audience will be convinced that the movie is indeed something hot and desirable.
After a few random meetings, at a camp when they're fourteen and once during college, Natalie Portman's Emma and Ashton Kutcher's Adam bump into each other as adults in Los Angeles – she's a doctor-in-residence at UCLA and he's a wannabe writer working in some vague production role on a Glee-like television show. She's allergic to relationships and he's on the rebound, having just discovered that his ex-girlfriend is now bedding his much older father (Kevin Kline's aging onetime sitcom TV star Alvin).
Emma suggests that they enter into a physical relationship only, ie "friends with benefits." But given that the press notes state that the film asks the question: "Can two friends have sex without love getting in the way?" the theme is faulty from the start. The twosome aren't friends. They barely know each other. If they'd had any actual history together, then perhaps the characters might have been anchored in some viable reality. But no, they stay shallow all the way.
Among the many missteps, the film suffers from miscasting. While Natalie Portman can act up a dramatic storm, she's not the go-to gal for light, frothy comedy. Her character is seemingly far more comfortable with tears gushing down her face than when she's forced to smile. And "forced" it is, her upturned lips looking more like a tentative grimace than a natural response to feelings of joy. So much for the comedy portion of the rom-com. As for the romance, the audience is expected to take a great leap of faith in believing that this overwrought doctor-in-residence, working 80+ hours a week, has any libido whatsoever. That she desires a bed is obvious ... but for sleep rather than action. It's not just that her recent portrayal of the sexually-challenged, frigid Nina in Black Swan still holds sway – but with her frame still alarmingly undersized (the petite actress lost twenty pounds for Black Swan, and immediately followed up that production with this one), she doesn't convince as a lusty young creature hungering for carnal adventures.
Rather, her appetite might be sated by a whole roast turkey bursting with stuffing and lots and lots of pie. Followed by a nap. And then the whole thing again.
As her counterpart, Ashton Kutcher once again plays the amiable fellow without much depth. That an actor can make an entire career out of pleasant and pretty is not without precedent – it's as if he's a throwback to the early '60s Troy Donohue-Robert Walker-Tab Hunter mode, where beefcake is all. Surprisingly, even in his commercials for Nikon, he conveys far more charm.
What's even more astonishing than the casting is the fact that veteran director Ivan Reitman (Dave, Twins, Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs) has lost all sense of comic pacing. Scene after scene, the lines are uttered with undue weight, followed by pauses so unrelentingly long that we could easily turn on our smartphones, text our own best buddies for a quickie rendezvous, and get right back to the movie without missing a beat.
Speaking of which: while modern films need to reflect the times and cell phones in which we live, there's an alarming new, non-dramatic and tedious reliance on the buzzing smartphone as a major means of communication. No Strings Attached is as guilty of this as the last horror of a rom-com, How Do You Know. Hopefully directors will figure out how to utilize the cell sparingly – otherwise, we might as well visit each other at wi-fi hotspots and watch each other type, text and chat. It's just as thrilling and wow, what a cost saver.
As for Elizabeth Meriwether's script, it's a mess. There's never any examination of what makes Emma so frightened of relationships until an awkward third act aside from her mother (Talia Balsam), in which she acknowledges that while Emma had acted strong for her when her husband (Emma's father) died, there's no need for her to do that anymore. This makes no sense because a) this strength, which we never see, doesn't necessarily preclude a loving heart and b) when we meet the 14-year-old Emma at the film's opening, she's already flinty, stating "I'm not affectionate."
Worse, the script teeters between shallow and offensive, due to its incestuous references throughout. Since Adam and his dad have bedded the same girl, they're "tunnel buddies;" Emma hotly confronts Adam's ex-girlfriend, stating that Adam's dad couldn't possibly be as good as Adam in bed; and Emma's mom confides that no one, including Emma's dead father, is a better lover than her new beau named "Bones" – and that's why he's called that.
May we hear a collective "Ewwww..."?
Thankfully, many in the supporting cast make the piece more palatable. Lake Bell as Adam's hyper-active co-worker is quirky, mad and great fun – perhaps one of Bell's best performances yet. Emma's doctor roommates (Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, Guy Branum) are all delightful. On the other hand, Cary Elwes is wasted and while Kevin Kline tries to be outwardly flashy and inwardly sincere, the writing is far too obvious to allow him much depth.
And there we have it. No Strings Attached. Sadly, not much talent, either.
Rating on a scale of 5 wooden Pinocchios: 1.5
Release date: US: 21 January 2011; UK: 25 February 2011
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
Screenplay by: Elizabeth Meriwether
Story by: Mike Samonek and Elizabeth Meriwether
Cast: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Cary Elwes, Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jake Johnson, Mindy Kaling, Talia Balsam, Ophelia Lovibond, Guy Branum
Rating: US = R; UK = 15
Running time: 108 minutes