The premise of this romantic comedy directed by Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman is simple — and that’s its big advantage. No complicated subplots, high concepts, slapstick gross-outs; no detours into violence or tragedy: just two attractive, likable people with some bumps on the way to truly hitching up as a couple. Adam (Ashton Kutcher) is a very tall, amazingly happy, beautiful, basically goodhearted aspiring TV writer with a low-level job on a teen musical series. Those words are all used by women in the movie to describe him. And who can question them as applied to Kutcher? The role is no stretch for him, and he wears it as comfortably as any part he’s ever had. His sex partner/erotic pal Emma (Natalie Portman) is a small, exquisite, magnetic, and intensely motivated woman, a doctor-in-training in the present whom he once got to second base with at summer camp fifteen years ago and had another near-miss with in college. In a pivotal scene, he wakes up in Emma’s apartment amid her roommates and her after a drunken evening when he had been calling every girl he knew trying to get laid after discovering his ex has shacked up with his narcissistic dad. Nothing happened the night before with Emma and her roommates but some nude shenanigans on his part, he learns. (With the film’s typical restraint, these are described rather than shown.) But what happens next, after Adam’s hung-over awakening at her place, is that he and Emma, these old semi-erotic pals, finally do fall into bed and have real sex. And they enjoy it. They know they’re going to want to continue. But Emma is absolutely firm. She won’t let this lead into commitment. She thinks a relationship makes her tense and neurotic and insists she and Adam just meet at any time they can between her 36-hour days at the hospital for sex. Adam, a fun-loving guy who’s always been attracted to her, is more than willing to oblige. He agrees to the deal and the quick day and night couplings ramp up. But then he begins to fall in love. She pushes him to have sex with other women.
A paradox, willingly highlighted by Adam’s pals: he’s got a young man’s dream. Unlimited no-strings sex with a beautiful woman. Another paradox, pointed out to Emma by her best mates: she’s got a really nice, handsome, devoted sex partner who wants to be her boyfriend. And neither of them is satisfied. But we know these “friends with benefits” are going to become a real couple eventually.
There is so little to this comedy, but that’s what makes it work. Of course Adam has the obligatory man-pals (including Ludacris) to advise and comment on his doings. Emma has an apartment full of fellow hospital resident roommates, including Greta Gerwig and a gay man. Adam has a roomate (Jake Johnson) who begins dating Greta Gerwig. He also has a father, Alvin (Kline), known for a lame TV sit-com called “Great Scott,” whose midlife crisis has taken the form of his dating Adam’s former girlfriend Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond), a ditsy little number with a Cockney accent. Alvin is saved from being terminally annoying by being played by Kevin Kline. This May-December couple’s childish selfishness serves to set off Adam’s fundamental decency. The serious subtext of the movie is that we live in a society that makes love between a man and a woman seem an out-of-date concept, and young people have to work to accept that being perfect together means embarking on a relationship.
No Strings Attached has raunchy language as befits its contemporary setting, but is entirely free of gross-out Apatow moments. Here is a feel-good comedy that, if not non-stop hilarious, actually does keep you feeling good all the way through, for a change. The movie also has a female orientation, focusing as it does on women who are ambitious, hard-working, smart, and very independent, and on a man who’s comfortable with them. When Adam finds Emma and her roommates all having their period, including the gay guy in sympathy, he comes with a box of excellent cupcakes and a menstruation mix CD including Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String.” This is where Emma forgets and gives in tothe dangerous temptation to cuddle, with their clothes on, no less: big no-no. The ambitious, smart, and energetic “girls” really don’t know from romance. Their lives have gone from frat parties to the career track, with no detours into real intimacy.
Emma eventually banishes Adam, and he’s hurt, and then distracted by getting hired to his show’s writing staff through the intervention of Lucy (Lake Bell), a show producer and neurotic female admirer (she’s the one who lets slip that she finds him beautiful). Emma realizes she misses Adam and loves him, and then after some misunderstandings and fast drives up and down the California coast, Adam and Emma go to Emma’s sister’s wedding and hold hands. It’s over. Why do I like this comedy, which admittedly is no work of genius? First because ever since Kelso in “That ’70s Show” I’ve admired Ashton Kutcher’s good-natured, loose comic style, and he’s never had a role that so simply and believably brings out those natural qualities. (Those who take his charm for sheer blandness may be unmoved.) Second, it’s nice to see Natalie Portman being just a little bit naturally neurotic and not a mad ballerina trapped in a sick fantasy. She is much more comfortable in this far from Oscar-bait role, as strong and confident as Kutcher is relaxed and laid-back. Third, Reitman directs with suavity and good taste. The only sour note is the tacky midlife crisis subplot, which even Kevin Kline finally cannot save, and wafts in unseemly breezes of Hollywood sleaze that seem generally irrelevant. Another reservation: Elizabeth Meriwether’s script is smart and has moments of topical wit and natural, organic dialogue, but it could be funnier.
No Strings Attached is released in UK cinemas 25th February 2011.
DIRECTOR: IVAN REITMAN
STARS: ASHTON KUTCHER, NATALIE PORTMAN
RUNTIME: 106 MINS APPROX