January 21, 2011

No Strings Attached

Did you say carrots or carats?

Grade: C +
Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, and Ludacris
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

The best thing that can be said about director Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached is that there are brief interludes that would befit one of his son Jason’s acclaimed dramedies (Juno and Up in the Air). As a whole, however, the film is a slapdash retread already done before – and much funnier – by a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and Elaine embark on an ill-fated attempt to become friend with benefits, complete with unsustainable ground rules.

Put another way, No Strings Attached is a conventional romantic-comedy that tries so hard to seem unconventional that it makes a muddle of whatever message or emotions it portends to convey. Adam (Ashton Kutcher), a production assistant for a Glee-lite TV show, becomes the on-call booty call for Emma (Natalie Portman), a med student and commitment-phobe.

Naturally, complications arise when Adam and Emma start to develop feelings for each other. But, the banality of this plot-by-numbers pales in comparison to the way it props up its primary narrative device. For starters, Adam and Emma aren’t really friends – they’re virtual strangers who met four times by chance over 15 years before hooking-up in the heat of a moment’s passion and deciding to keep this good thing going sans the messiness of a functional human relationship.

It’s easy – and superficial – to presuppose why any red-blooded male would buy into this arrangement. What is more dicey – and disturbing – is to delve into Emma’s motives. Allusions are made to Emma’s fractured psyche, but they are never explained or put into any context. Is Emma a nymphomaniac, or is there some abuse in her background that stunted her emotional growth and brought her to the point of shunning healthy romantic relationships?

Reitman and writer Elizabeth Meriwether – penning her feature film debut – never answer these questions, nor do they leave time to do so amidst their lurching subplots, including Adam’s father Alvin (Kevin Kline), a former TV sitcom dad who begins dating one of his son’s ex-girlfriends. Gags involving homosexuality and menstrual cycles are forced and borderline offensive in the way they are sloppily used, although a PMS-themed mix tape Adam makes for Emma and her female roommates is one of the few amusing highlights.

There is also a stark, disconcerting dissonance between the story’s inherent genial charm and the profane, raunchy humor that continually rears its inopportune head – F-bombs are conspicuously dropped as if they were being mounted and hung in an art gallery. Portman is a fine actress who will likely win her first Oscar in a couple of months. But, No Strings Attached proves that when not backed by a good director and an intelligent script, this talented, delicate beauty still doesn’t know how to dance the Black Swan.

Neil Morris

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