by Richard von Busack
Some two years ago, it must have been thought that the phenomena of sleepover friendship was going to be the next frontier in the rom-com. In this crowded field (Love and Other Drugs, Friends With Benefits) No Strings Attached has at least strong underpinnings.
Can we believe that Natalie Portman is a beautiful physician who works like a maniac and wants a sex life with no demands? Why not?
Can Ashton Kutcher play Adam, a likable but not brilliant aspiring TV scriptwriter who lucks into meeting the demands of the above-mentioned Emma? Naturally.
Can both of these status-crossed lovers be linked by issues about their respective fathers, which would give them a lack of trust? Easily.
I’d love to see some dime-store psychology about what, if anything, the film’s subplotting has to do with the real-life relationship between Ivan and his son, Jason: the director in this strong comeback was a blue-chip director in the 1980s (Ghostbusters, etc.). His son Jason is, of course, seriously blue chip today (Up in the Air, etc.)
The plot has it that there’s a slightly violent rivalry between the climbing kid and his too-immature, philandering dad Alvin (Kevin Klein), worsened by the two having shared the same girl…they’re “tunnel buddies,” as Adam’s pal Wallace (Ludacris) puts it.
It’s how director Ivan Reitman dresses this particular salad that gives No Strings Attached its off-putting qualities. True he’s found fresh-looking locations of LA nightlife in the west side. And he’s cast half of the under-30 standup comedians in that city to show up in bit parts. They’re great delivers of punchlines; they’re not so great at embodying really developed characters.
Greta Gerwig may not have the star power of Portman, but as her housemate she steals every scene she’s in. Gerwig, the long-time indie star, is completely on the wavelength of this kind of overtly sexual, emotionally tangled comedy. She’s on the ball in a way the graceful, tiny dancer star isn’t. It’s fascinating to watch the two walking together through hospital corridors. Gerwig, generally cast for her air of lingering adolescence, looks confident and suave, towering over Portman, who is the movie’s true ditherer over the cost of romance.
Another problem: the complications don’t complicate. The potential other man in Emma’s life (Ben Lawson), does some of the blatant, weakest Ralph Bellamying ever seen.
(Above: Ralph Bellamy, always a future ex-boyfriend in '30s and '4os romantic comedy, trying hopelessly to run interference against Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940). He's a life insurance salesman: "I figure I'm in one business that really helps people. Of course, we don't help you much while you're alive, but afterward - that's what counts!" )
There’s not much diversion, either, from the other woman in Adam’s life: the imposing Lake Bell, who doesn’t get the best of a clumsy Mike Nichols-style awkward make-out scene.
Portman looks glorious in her underwear; he’s as hard-bodied as a superheroine. But is she up to the crude side of comedy? The description of her Emma “Rick Moranis type” is a nod to the elder Reitman’s more famous days. So is a view of the poster for his film Meatballs (1979).
But Moranis? As the Shout Factory DVDs of SCTV show, Moranis was a tremendous comedian, and Portman doesn’t have his chops. Some of the scenes here show Reitman as he always was—a skit artist who leaves material half-baked. Note the strangeness of Portman’s drunk scene, when she tells off a pair of girls who were trying to make love in Adam’s apartment (the set up for this matter is an insult to the intelligence). She kicks them out calling them “bitches” and, bafflingly, “pumpkins”. This streetiness isn’t Portman’s kind of thing, even if it’s the kind of thing for today’s low-brow rom-coms.
And Kutcher isn’t more persuasive in his abilities to play the smooth, yearning side of romantic comedy. He looks for some way to subvert his more serious moments. As well he might—he looks self-conscious and calf-like in them. He’s there to be Kutcher, a goofy, butt-bearing kid.
No Strings Attached is a movie in which the phrase “I can’t do this” is used as a play for more time. It has that familiar ADD of the comedy that goes scene to scene: eventually Emma and Adam confront Alvin as a child who never grew up. And this demand for emotional maturity is followed with the two lovers heading for an ice-cream pigout and a trip to the miniature golf course.
There’s a meaner indie comedy in this film trying to get out. Reitman beats it down and stalls it. It arrives at its point and then sticks around for a half an hour waiting for something to do.