by Roxana Hadadi
I’ll be honest: I fully expected to hate “No Strings Attached.” The commercials for the R-rated romantic comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman as friends theoretically living the dream by having casual sex make the flick seem exploitative and idiotic, especially because Kutcher’s track record hasn’t been great lately (“Killers,” anyone?) and we’re used to seeing Portman in more dramatic, serious fare. Even before “Black Swan,” Portman would have probably been remembered for her turns in “Closer,” “Garden State” and “V for Vendetta,” not for the mistakes that were “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” and “New York, I Love You.” Oh, such bad mistakes.
But, shockingly enough, “No Strings Attached” is kind of great. One of the first romantic comedies of the new year, the film benefits both from snappy dialogue and a brisk pace, probably thanks to the deft hand of director Ivan Reitman – who helmed both “Ghostbusters” and “Ghostbusters II” – and writer Elizabeth Meriwether, a playwright making her first foray into film. Meriwether is young (29) and she gets how young adults talk and interact and text; Reitman is older (64), and as the guy who gave us Bill Murray in “Meatballs” and “Stripes,” gets what makes people laugh. Together the two make a rom-com that falls into some clichés toward the end but delivers mega-laughs as it moves toward its eventually happy conclusion.
The film begins with flashbacks: Fifteen years ago, we see a teenage Adam and Emma sitting on a bench at camp; as other couples make out around them, the awkwardness is obvious. Adam dissolves into tears; his parents are getting a divorce. Emma pats him on the shoulder, not sure what to do but offering her support. He asks, “Can I finger you?” She flatly replies no. Hooking up does not ensue. Five years ago, we see the older pair (now Kutcher and Portman) recognize each other at a frat party, where Emma’s best friend Patrice (Greta Gerwig) is wearing a pair of boxer shorts with “WHORE” emblazoned across the back and Adam’s best friend Eli (Jake M. Johnson) is failing to pick up girls. Adam and Emma have a good time, but things get weird when she invites him to her father’s funeral the next day – and later warns him, “If you’re lucky, you’re never gonna see me again.”
Both are pleased, though, when they run into each other in Los Angeles four years later – this time, Emma and Patrice are both doctors at a local hospital, while Adam and Eli, who live together, are out with Adam’s girlfriend, the British Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond). She seems flaky and fake – she’s a double-cheek-kisser! – and she soon leaves Adam, eventually hooking up with his father, Alvin (Kevin Kline), an ultra-rich retired TV actor. While Alvin and Vanessa do drugs and other tawdry things, Adam – who works as an assistant on a “High School Musical”-like show but yearns to be a writer – gets exceptionally drunk and vows to sleep with any girl who will have him.
And though he doesn’t immediately have sex with Emma, who takes him in that night after he calls her in despair, the pair’s attraction to each other materializes into a one-morning stand, which after a couple of days develops into something more: A friends-with-benefits relationship where the two are at each other’s beck and call sexually any time during the day or night. Since Emma is a doctor, she’s not looking for someone to cuddle with, and she doesn’t demand that they eat breakfast together. Instead, as the instigator of their sexual dalliances, Emma is just looking for some action – and warns that if the two of them start developing feelings for each other or jealousy toward other people, the deal is off.
What follows is generally what you’d expect – the two come together, push each other away and then realize they’re meant to be together, etc. – but the film’s 104 minutes don’t drag or become tedious. The film instead works because of Kutcher’s and Portman’s chemistry and the ease both bring to their roles. Kutcher channels the goofy smugness he brought to his role as Michael Kelso in “That ’70s Show,” one of first acting gigs, and Portman taps into the manic energy she displayed in that 2006 “Saturday Night Live” digital short, “Natalie Raps,” where she faux-boasted about getting high at Harvard and other misbehaviors that made her a “badass bitch.” But they bring enough range to their roles to make the characters believable, too – Portman is refreshingly loose here, like when she calls over-tanned girls “pumpkins” and smack-talks Vanessa, and Kutcher is more emotionally mature than he’s been in films like “What Happens in Vegas.” Weirdly enough, the two work.
A strong supporting cast and wisecracking dialogue help, too. Gerwig and Johnson are good together as the best friends who understand that Adam and Emma should date, and their interactions – like when Patrice deadpans, “Yeah, you’re super-straight” after Eli makes a “Beverly Hills, 90210” reference – keep the film light. So does Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, whose blunt asides (at one point, he calls Adam and his father “tunnel buddies” for having shared Vanessa as a sexual partner) also gather a good bit of laughs.
But “No Strings Attached” is rated R, and since it’s a comedy about sex, there’s obviously a lot of that. There are numerous sex scenes, with varying degrees of nudity and detail – in the first, we see Portman’s and Kutcher’s faces and reactions during the entire act; in later ones, we see her on top of him and the two coupling in a variety of places, from cars to hospital beds – as well as cursing and sexually explicit language. We see both Portman’s and Kutcher’s behinds, as well as some drug use in Adam and his father smoking weed; other drug use is mentioned, such as Alvin and Eli doing mushrooms and a character’s overdose from “purple drank,” a mix of cough syrup and soda. People get drunk and do silly things, like climb on top of buffet tables and try to disrobe; there’s one lesbian make-out; and there is an implied gay sex scene, but nothing is shown. Older teens that can technically get into the film should be able to take in the sexual scenes while also understanding the film’s overall love-is-grand message, but younger ones, even those who are 16 or so, may not be mature enough for the underlying themes about loss and emotional attachment.
“No Strings Attached” loses some of its funniness toward the end, when the film tries to build up its sappiness level by pumping up the majestic music, delivering long gazes between lovers and making some sentimental speeches. Before then, though, the movie walks a fine funniness line that will probably deliver for female audiences the same kind of raunchiness guys got with “Superbad” and “Knocked Up.” We’ve been waiting long enough.