At least the acting is top-notch. Portman does a good job as the commitment-phobic, emotionally awkward Emma; her attempt at a sympathetic hug looks like a poorly timed judo hold. Kutcher counters with his happy-gangly thing. If actors were dogs, he’d be a Great Dane. Their (small) circle of friends includes such talent as Jake M. Johnson, Ludacris, Mindy Kaling (from TV’s The Office) and Greenberg’s Greta Gerwig.
In many ways, No Strings plays like a more tame version of the recent Love & Other Drugs, with a touch less nudity and none of that depressing early-onset Parkinson’s. Here it’s pretty clear that Kutcher is in the “female” role, as the one who yearns for post-coital spooning, when all Portman wants is to jump in the sack.
Unfortunately, the old switcheroo will take you only so far, and it doesn’t excuse such laziness as setting your movie in Los Angeles and giving half the characters jobs in the entertainment field.
One senses a bit of wish-fulfilment from the writers when Kutcher’s character tries to pen a script for a TV show. References to rapper Lil Wayne and the homemade narcotic “purple drank,” meanwhile, feel like the 64-year-old Reitman trying to get young.
There’s an interesting backstory to the film’s name, which was changed to No Strings Attached from Friends with Benefits when it was learned that a similar movie with that title was in the works. It stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, and is set to open July 22. The pairing falls somewhere between duelling asteroid movies and rival Truman Capote biopics, but I fear I’ll be comparing both to When Harry Met Sally . and finding them wanting. You never forget your first love.
No Strings Attached starts off with our two leads as kids at a summer camp. This first scene ends with a bold question asked by the young boy, who’ll grow up to become Ashton Kutcher, of the young, spunky girl who’ll grow up to be Natalie Portman. It’s unexpected, rude and funny.
What immediately follows is more of the same, and most if works really well, until it all runs out of steam. Directed by Ivan Reitman, who wades comfortably into rated-R territory after years relegated to the PG-13 kiddie pool, this rom-com poses a question When Harry Met Sally… asked over two decades ago, only with more sex jokes.
Kutcher and Portman have plenty enough chemistry to work through the tired conversations about the physical versus the emotional in relationships, and screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether peppers her script with original takes on conventional plodding to elicit more laughter than usual from this tired formula. In one particularly clever scene, Kutcher’s Adam makes Portman’s Emma a “Period Mix,” full of double entendre-titled songs meant to help her cope with that time of the month.
And then, like an alarm, a slew of scenes rattle off that first jump the shark of crudeness for crudeness’ sake before weaving into the familiar thread of romantic comedy. Sadly, Adam’s father, played by the uber-talented Kevin Kline, is much to blame for this change. His character goes from semi-satirical Hollywood bite to all-out caricature without so much as a beat. His dopey girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond) doesn’t help either. Mash that together with a late-night scene in which Emma gets drunk and invades a threesome Adam’s trying to get off the ground and we feel like we’re watching a completely different movie.
After this, perhaps it would have been smart to push forward, going wilder and wilder, embracing the ridiculousness of these little subplots. Instead, Reitman and Meriwether recoil, as does the dialogue. Jokes get longer and less funny and the drama becomes the center and nowhere near as original as the comedy that populated the first 45 minutes.