No Strings Attached
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Screenplay by Elizabeth Meriwether
Natalie Portman as Emma
Ashton Kutcher as Adam
Kevin Kline as Alvin
Cary Elwes as Dr. Metzner
Running time: 110 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material.
Sex comedy features witty writing, charming leads, independent women, and a truly unfortunate Hollywood ending.
The first thing you should know about No Strings Attached is that it’s not a true romantic comedy but a sex comedy with romantic aspirations; the second is that it’s smarter and cuter than many of its recent fellows. Any romantic comedy that features a fourteen-year-old boy weeping about his parents’ divorce while his female counterpart awkwardly pats his shoulder as she mumbles “I’m not really an affectionate person” is a little different from the rest. Hollywood would have us believe women are nagging broads whose sole desire in life is to find a man, tie him down, and pop out kids. Men, though—well, all men want is sex and lots of it. These things can be true, certainly, but it’s still a thing of beauty when a studio picture deviates from the norm—even if only for a little while.
In Ivan Reitman’s flick, Emma Kurtzman (Natalie Portman) and Adam Franklin (Ashton Kutcher) meet at Camp Weehawken as teenagers and keep accidentally meeting for the next fifteen years. Adam, the son of smarmy former TV star Alvin Franklin (Kevin Kline) and a P.A. for a High School Musical-like TV show, is a bit of a ne’er do well who strives for better. Emma, on the other hand, works eighty hours a week doing her medical residency in Los Angeles; her focus is solely on a career. All she needs, she says, is a guy who’ll show up in her bed at two a.m., someone with whom she doesn’t have to snuggle or eat breakfast. Adam fits the bill for awhile. Inevitably someone catches Feelings—as When Harry Met Sally posits, “the sex part always gets in the way.”
No Strings Attached had all the makings of another flop like Going the Distance: charming leads, witty role reversals, drunk girls making fools of themselves. Elizabeth Meriwether’s smart script, which manages to balance foolishness and intelligence (the two are not always mutually exclusive), places it a bit below the rest on the offensiveness scale. A supporting cast that includes genuinely funny ladies Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling, adorable Olivia Thirlby, charmingly neurotic Lake Bell, and Ludacris certainly doesn’t hurt. Costuming and music are period-appropriate and appealing to the twenty-somethings the movie targets: a Mariachi band plays The Pussycat Dolls while a country trio covers Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” and Juicy Couture gets a jab with a pair of shorts shouting WHORE across the backside. Pop culture references can be distracting, but Meriwether manages a delicate equilibrium between overload and out-of-the-blue witty. The movie’s pacing keeps it rolling along, and Meriwether’s script mostly keeps its head above water though there are a few lines that sink like stones. There’s a sex montage (because what sex/romantic comedy would be complete without cute, albeit honest sex?), a menstruation bit (because “it’s like a crime scene in my pants”), and gratuitous male derriere (specifically, Kutcher’s). These are pretty standard ingredients in a romantic comedy, but Portman and her female castmates, who don’t spend hours agonizing over their beaus in self-deprecating ways, keep the early part of No Strings Attached from joining the ranks of Valentine’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You.
Portman, whose poise has in the past made her roles nigh unbelievable, takes this opportunity to bust out her comedic timing. The actress (or someone in her camp) is taking pains to endear her to the public: at the Golden Globes, bearing a second-trimester belly, she giggled dorkily as she related the fact that her fiancé and baby daddy, Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied, wants to sleep with her. In No Strings Attached, her character makes her intentions clear then makes a total ass of herself by hitting on her superior at a Christmas party and calling Adam’s potential hookups pumpkins (to be fair, their tans do resemble the great orange squash). Portman’s turn in Black Swan aside, she’s finally showing her goofy side, and it’s refreshing.
On opening night, the movie played to theaters across the country packed full of young women (and a lot of guys who want to get laid). It is heartening to see ladies in the audience for a supposedly empowering movie, but it’s a letdown to hear them jeer and boo when Emma wants simple sex. Unfortunately, the studios pandered to those hecklers: the movie devolves into sentimentality, and it’s a disappointment though not a surprise. No Strings Attached features a completely unnecessary moment in which Emma’s detachment is validated. Likewise unnecessary is a moment when Adam’s father Alvin redeems himself, a single tear rolling down his ravaged cheek. There’s even a cute puppy.
Studios are beginning to cater to the “hookup culture” people are wringing their hands about. The worst thing about No Strings Attached is its “teachable moment” ending: nobody’s capable of sex without feelings, didn’t you know? Portman and Reitman have been plugging No Strings Attached as a comedy that didn’t punish its female characters for their sexuality, and I can get behind that. Some of us are still waiting for a movie that doesn’t dismiss real no strings attached relationships, but we understand it may be awhile. It’s a little painful to watch the characters, whose motivations seemed at first to be realistic, disintegrate into a nose-wrinkling “I love you!” scene—but Hollywood is taking baby steps. Perhaps if savvy moviegoers lead them by the hand we’ll start to see a change in the formula.