After playing such an intense and psychologically disturbed young woman in Black Swan, Oscar nominee Natalie Portman deserves a bit of light relief, and Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached offers just that – for both actor and viewer alike. Instantly, it has critics convulsing at the very thought of ‘yet another romcom’, and even more so with notorious ‘film-jinxer’ Ashton Kutcher at the helm. Although it falls into the many clichéd traps of the genre (for example, girl and boy denying the flaming obvious), it actually has some amicable and candid qualities that make it more appealing than the usual run-of-the-mill offerings of recent months.
It takes the ago-old premise of the iconic When Harry Met Sally’s ‘friends with benefits’, and ramps up the ‘sex only’ part. Only this time, it’s the woman who’s more sexually active and nonchalant about the relationship, with the man wanting more. But the female’s guard must come down for the ‘rom’ to work its magic. Therefore, that’s were it plays to the genre’s predictability, which is why some are having an unsurprising pop at it. The fact is, No Strings Attached does keep you pleasantly entertained because you can’t help but like all the characters involved, the majority of which have a realistic stance on relationships. It also serves up how most of the genre’s fans want their romcom to play out – obviously, but with more credible beings that don’t live in an idyllic microcosm of affluent smugness.
Kutcher plays Adam, an aspiring writer who’s still stuck in rut in a PA job for a Glee-style TV show. Portman is Emma, the girl he tried to indecently proposition years earlier at summer camp. Emma has since grown up into a stunning commitment-phobe and workaholic doctor. After discovering that his successful screenwriter Dad (played by Kevin Kline) has been banging his ex, a drunken Adam grabs his phone and goes through his address book, until he finds ‘no strings attached’ sex for the night. Emma is the lucky lady – although the deed happens the next morning as Adam was in an intoxicated haze. After a heated bed session before brunch, she and Adam decide to be ‘f*ckbuddies’ (the original title of Elizabeth Meriwether’s screenplay that was wisely changed). But love seeps in and spoils everything. On paper, it sounds totally predictable, but that’s the point, isn’t it?
What is a shock is Kutcher is a welcome surprise in this film, in a part that many of us would expect him to annihilate, especially since the release of the nauseating Valentine’s Day. He combines his ‘cute’ and fun-loving aspects and good looks (he’s obviously been working on his upper body tone with image-conscious wife Demi) with an altogether pathetic, self-depreciating side that allow us to sympathise and openly mock him in equal measure. It’s the first time this critic has ‘got him’ in any role as he plays to his strengths. Admittedly, he has some fine, albeit under-used talent assisting him, with a supporting cast of Klein, Ludacris, Jake Johnson and Lake Bell.
Portman who has been emotionally stiff in past roles, unless she’s playing fragile and tormented, turns on a hidden charm offensive that ultimately dissolves her ballsy independent façade as Emma. She comes across as sharply witty, divinely adorable and decidedly un-clingy – every man’s dream, surely? Kutcher and Portman seem like an unlikely screen combination, especially with the height difference, but produce an incandescent coupling full of cynical but amusing banter, even though their characters suffer that one-dimensionality associated with the genre. There is a wonderful ‘time of the month’ moment, where Adam makes a period tape and delivers it and a box of donuts to a suffering Emma and her roomies to enjoy, which is actually quite touching.
Reitman has got his casting right in this, even if he doesn’t fully deploy all their talents, sparingly using those of comedy genius Klein and Cary Elwes as priggish dreamboat Dr. Metzner who believes he’s the best catch for Emma. However, the first issue is the beginning of the film, which is stilted and unconvincing as to how Adam and Emma become friends at all, let alone ‘friends with benefits’. Aside from their school meeting, they seem more like distant acquaintances that happen to keep bumping into each other. Would Emma even entertain allowing Adam into her life, if he called up drunk and asking for a bit of action out of the blue, or put him down as a freak? Still, Adam could have Emma’s number after all these years, especially as she was a teen crush…
Secondly, the writing isn’t quite as snappy and on a par with the likes of Apatow’s or Reitman Jr’s work, sloppily falling back on well-worn material and the odd inject of tired schoolboy humour (fingering jokes aside) – even if the latter is done with the biggest of hearts and winks. There is a teeth-jangling one-liner at the end that ends up destroying all respect the sassy leads had subsequently built up. But love is blind and soppy in the heat of the moment when someone wears their heart on their sleeve, so we can’t be too critical, can we?
Reitman makes sure all the loose ends are satisfactorily sown up in No Strings Attached. The Kutcher-Portman chemistry is left to react naturally in an almost loosely improv’d way, and fizzes away nicely in this amicable ‘buddy’ tale of the sexes, without bringing any unnecessary blushes to the cast with vulgar, cheap jokes that could creep into such a sexually-confident storyline. And even though the poster would have you think otherwise, the nudity and sex scenes are prudently done to enhance its ‘nookie-only’ subject matter, rather than turning it into a titillating smut fest. Portman fans traumatised by her sexually aggressive antics in Black Swan can be reassured that she reverts back to her exquisite self, albeit with a newfound sexual confidence and maturity. And Kutcher can finally be comfortable with a performance, too.