Post-Modern Romance

film_stringsAppealing cast vs. silly premise in ‘No Strings Attached’

Like many romantic comedies, No Strings Attached begins with an absurd premise. It’s about a couple who have fun together, the sex is fabulous, and they’re simpatico in every way, but they can’t be together because of one of those ridiculous, self-imposed conditions you find only in the movies that they spend the entire movie trying (and ultimately failing) to stick to.

And while the audience is still trying to suspend its disbelief, the first half hour of the movie goes by in a series of drunken encounters, idiotic guy talk, and a barrage of penis jokes. Not jokes involving actual penises, but jokes involving the word “penis,” which is evidently supposed to be hilarious in its own right because, once upon a time in the Stone Age, it was one of those words you weren’t allowed to say in the movies. (It’s like the first time Mel Brooks discovered he could get away with saying “shit” onscreen, and then he couldn’t shut up about it; every new film was peppered with gags where that was the entire punchline.)

Anyway, with these two strikes against it right up front, it’s amazing that No Strings Attached recovers at all. That it’s actually become sort of charming and engaging by film’s end is due almost entirely to the appeal of stars Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. Fluttering back from the psychosis of Black Swan, Portman reminds us that she’s an agile comedienne with a light touch. But it’s Kutcher who carries the show as a genuinely nice guy coping with a weird situation as best he can, with humor and thoughtfulness. All through the movie, people keep saying his character has “a good heart,” and Kutcher makes us believe it.

Directed by comedy veteran Ivan Reitman (Animal House; Ghostbusters), the film is written by Elizabeth Meriwether, whose script gets off to an iffy start, but gradually finds its groove. After a chance meeting at summer camp the year his parents divorced, and an encounter at a college frat party years later on the eve of her father’s funeral, Adam (Kutcher) and Emma (Portman) meet up again in Los Angeles. He’s a production assistant on a popular Glee-type TV series; she’s an intern at the Westwood Teaching Hospital.

Their chemistry is perfect, but Emma doesn’t want a relationship; she works 80 hours a week, she says, and needs somebody who will be available for sex at any hour with no messy romantic entanglements. Egged on by his buddies that he’s living every man’s wildest fantasy, Adam agrees, already smitten with her, but gallantly trying to play by her rules. Of course, they fall in love instantly, but if they didn’t keep trying to abide by Emma’s doomed and silly game plan, there would be no plot.

It’s not just that Emma is commitment shy; she’s pathological. Declaring she’s “not an affectionate person,” she’s awkward at social hugging, and as a bed partner, she refuses to spoon or snuggle. She’s so creeped out when Adam attempts to take her on a normal date, they almost come to blows. (“You fight like a hamster,” he protests.) No comprehensible explanation is ever offered for her phobia (it may have something to do with losing her father, although since Adam is the child of divorce, you’d think he’d be more likely to distrust romance), so when her widowed mother offers an ad hoc absolution in the late innings, it doesn’t really resonate.

But if the central premise never quite flies, the movie still has its offbeat charms. Kevin Kline is fun as Adam’s dad, a much-divorced, aging roué of a former TV star trying to regain his lost youth—currently with Adam’s dingy, sexpot ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond). Lake Bell brings comic verve and vulnerability to the role of a Type-A TV producer with a crush on Adam. And there’s one very funny sequence when Emma and her roommates (two female and one sympathetic gay male) are all enduringfilm_nostring a mass menstrual meltdown at the same time when Adam brings them a special “period mix” CD (sample title: “I’ve Got the World on a String”), that goes a long way toward redeeming the movie all by itself.


★★1/2 (out of four)

With Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Kline. Written by Elizabeth Meriwether. Directed by Ivan Reitman. A Paramount release. Watch film trailer >>>Rated R. 110 minutes.


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