A film review by Craig J. Koban January 25, 2011


2011, R, 105 mins.


Emma: Natalie Portman / Adam: Ashton Kutcher / Dr. Metzner: Cary Elwes / Alvin: Kevin Kline / Patrice: Greta Gerwig / Lucy: Lake Bell / Vanessa: Ophelia Lovibond / Kate: Olivia Thirlby / Wallace: Chris Bridges / Eli: Jake Johnson

Directed by Ivan Reitman / Written by Elizabeth Meriwether

Natalie Portman will win an Oscar in a month for her searing, career high performance in BLACK SWAN, which makes her decision to star in mushy-gushy romcom all the more inexplicable.   Even more peculiar is her own comments on the genre itself, or perhaps should I say her condemnation of it.  In a recent interview she stated that in romcoms “The girls are always in fashion, and it’s always about the clothes.  They always want to get married at the end.  There’s some kind of makeover scene.  That stuff offends me.” 

Clearly, receiving a mighty high pay check was not as offensive to Portman as the prospect of appearing in the new Ivan Reitman romcom, NO STRINGS ATTACHED, which certainly, at face value, stridently adheres to the types of genre conventions that the actress claims she loathes.  The film –only Reitman’s third behind the director’s chair since 2001 – at least tries to pull a bit of bait and switch with the typical gender roles that occupy these types of films:  NO STRINGS ATTACHED shows a woman as an empowered, career-minded, and staunchly independent figure that’s fine on her own and the man is the one that is more emotionally fragile and sentimental and yearns for a loving relationship.  I remember writing in my review of last year’s January romcom LEAP YEAR how I yearned for a strong willed female protagonist in one of these films to be a person that just does not allow herself into a relationship because “the right man” is all that she needs to complete herself as a person; the man should have to convince her of the prospect.   

NO STRINGS ATTACHED thankfully does not make its main female role one of condescending and backward minded stereotype like, say, just about every recent Katherine Heigl romcom.   I also appreciate the fact that the male here suitor really has to work at persuading the woman that love is a noble endeavor for both to be on (how many romcoms have we seen where the women just simplistically and easily falls head over heels for the men that enter their lives?).  Yet, NO STRINGS ATTACHED is not nearly as progressive, edgy, and radical with skewing the formulas and routines of the genre as it thinks it is; by the time the story wraps up to an unavoidably tidy, happy, and predictable conclusion, you are left feeling that the film is just as annoyingly maudlin and manipulative as any other example of the genre. 

The film's central premise bares a striking resemblance to LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS: Can two men and women be sex buddies without truly becoming romantically attached?  The main difference with Edward Zwick’s film is that it dealt with this theme and characters contained within with much more raw honesty and integrity.   NO STRINGS ATTACHED begins several years in the past when two young teenagers hook up at camp that ends on a highly awkward point when the boy sheepishly asks if he has permission to violate the girl (it’s more crude than funny) and then we are transported forward several years when the boy, Adam (Ashton Kutcher) reacquaints himself with the girl, Emma (Natalie Portman) at a college party.  Adam is a struggling TV-writer and producer of a GLEE/HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL-esque show and Emma is an aspiring doctor working her way through her residency.  Even after several meet-cutes between the pair through different time periods, they never officially hit it off and become a couple. 

Things change when Adam learns, to his obvious dismay and horror, that his very famous celebrity father (Kevin Kline, a welcoming sight in any comedy) has shacked up with one of his very recent girlfriends.  Adam decides to get hammered and in the process he decides to call all of the girls on his iPhone in hopes of getting laid.  Adam eventually wakes up the next morning naked and in a strange apartment that, yup, Emma happens to be living in.  He cannot remember anything that transpired the night before, and after much teasing by Emma and her roommates, she convinces him that he did not get lucky with any of them.  However, within a few short minutes, Emma and Adam do have sex during an instance when their respective guards are down. 

The two then decide to form a sex pact: they will have intercourse as often as possible and anytime during the day just as long as they do not become emotionally invested in the other...so...no strings attached.  So, no post-sex cuddling or talking, no morning after breakfast, no dating, nadda; just a lot of fornication.  The sex between them is, of course, amazing, but, wouldn’t you know it, the likeable and puppy-dog eyed Adam is so nice and so sincere and so hopelessly romantic that he begins to have feelings for Emma, which she does not immediately reciprocate.  Emma is a hostile anti-relationship/love figure in every way, to the point where Adam’s attempts to woe her begin to turn her off.  They pair mutually separate and flirt with the idea of seeing other people, which if you ever watch any romcom in the past, means that the other potential suitors will either be twisted assholes or neurotic dweebs.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to hint that Emma begins to re-think her stance on being romantically close to Adam and chooses to actively get him back…before she loses him forever. 

NO STRINGS ATTACHED does benefit from having appealing and attractive lead actors in Portman and Kutcher and they do exhibit the requisite chemistry to allow viewers to yearn them to be together (which is a basic requirement of the genre).  Kutcher is a performer that does not have considerable range, but he can play soft spoken, amiable, and earnest roles like Adam quite adequately, and one of the nice things about the film is that the man is presented as fairly well adjusted, honest, and genuine person.  Portman is essentially in pure coast mode here (especially considering her last film), but she is a radiant enough of a presence and maintains a carefree and natural liveliness that makes Emma winning despite her flaws.   NO STRINGS ATTACHED achieves the romcom status quo for at least giving us two leads that we easily invest in and grow fond of. 

Yet, Emma and Adam are not completely compelling as characters and there is not much in the script in the way explaining why these two fall in love with one another outside of a physical attraction.  They are hot and uniformly good in the sack, but what common threads do they really have?  The film also feels like it's trying really hard to be a bawdy, hard-R rated, Judd Apatow-mannered sex comedy, but all of the f-bombs uttered and lewd banter comes off more like artificial punctuation marks than evoking the reality of how young people speak and act.  Furthermore, for a film that tries to be dirty and push the envelope, NO STRINGS ATTACHED takes the road-most-traveled approach and plays things way too safe as it transgresses into predictably warm hearted and teeth-gratingly sentimental finale, during which Kutcher utters a line to Portman that is in the upper echelon of wincing groan-inducers: “I’m warning you…if you come any closer…I may never let you go.”  Ouch. 

The film also does an incredible job of squandering its terrific supporting cast: Kevin Kline can play irreverent hedonists to dry effect in his sleep, but he’s not really given much to do here.  And then there is the feisty and lovely Olivia Thirlby (playing Portman’s sister) that is wasted in a role that barely registers.   Just look at Greta Gerwig too, who portrays Emma’s roommate and fellow hospital intern that is good at deadpanning hilarious quips, but for an actress that was so exultantly precise and authentic in portraying a mid-20’s woman in crisis in last year’s GREENBERG, her role here by comparison feels hopelessly beneath her talents. 

NO STRINGS ATTACHED tries to traverse between debauchery and romance, which is a tricky task, but I just wished that the film took more chances with the underlining material and became more subversively intriguing and funny.  Reitman’s film is more or less posing as something it’s truly not: it yearns to be a button-pushing and seditious dissection of romcom protocols, but its story ends with such a clunking and preordained familiarity:  Emma and Adam become soul mates not because of some ethereal and unbreakable bond between the pair, but essentially because the mechanizations of the plot require them to be soul mates to appease audiences.  Considering Portman’s comments that I used to preface this review, I left the theatre wondering how did this script did not offend her.  

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