I’ll say this for No Strings Attached, it’s not as bad as When in Rome. Granted, there are dental operations done without anesthesia that aren’t as bad as When in Rome, so it’s not a major step up.
Ashton Kutcher plays Adam, the son of an aging television star who hates his father and wants to be a writer. “Be a writer” means that he works as a gopher on a “Glee” rip off and wrote a single script for an episode before the film starts. I emphasize that this was before the film to make sure you don’t come away with the impression that the character actually does anything throughout the entire course of the movie, because that would be misleading.
Natalie Portman plays Emma, a doctor still in residency. She has daddy issues too and is thus afraid of commitment and unwilling to fall in love or even have a steady relationship. And since the work schedule of a doctor makes it difficult to find time to find one’s way home from strangers’ beds, she lights upon the much simpler idea of just sleeping with her lifelong friend Adam instead. The deal is struck that they should do so with no strings attached. Get it? It’s the title!
That’s the set up and then the rest of the film follows exactly the script outline that we all can write in our sleep. There’s the wacky friends, the montage, he falls in love, she freaks out and breaks it off, 6 weeks pass on a title card, she realizes she loves him too, happily ever fucking after. Do we really have to see this movie made over and over again every other week, and did we really expect it to be anything better than it is? It’s a middling comedy that has no idea what it wants to be but is certainly neither as witty or emotionally driven as it clearly thinks it is.
Perhaps the only thing of note in the movie is the fact that all of its presumed weakness and strengths are inverted. The wacky side characters that are abysmally obnoxious and boring in all of these films? They’re the best part of the movie. Mindy Kaling and Ludacris stole most of the scenes they were in, and a film based on their characters would seem far more interesting than the one we got focused on Kutcher and Portman. On the other hand, they brought in Kevin Kline to play Adam’s wacky father, which seems like it would be a high point. Instead each arrival of Kline on screen was a signal: it meant that for the next five minutes you’d hear jokes you’d already heard on sitcoms ten years ago so you could zone out even more. Ha! He’s old but he’s smoking marijuana! Ha! He’s dating his son’s ex-girlfriend! Ha ha ha! Come on Reitman, you’re the guy who brought us Stripes, get it together.
Kutcher tones his obnoxious jackassery down to a low simmer, and plays the role as a nice sweet goofball, with the smugness and smirk packed away for the most part. That is to say, he’s passable. Portman is not, which is more the fault of the writing than the acting. She’s got a mound of roles that show she can bring the dark and the crazy to a role, but there’s just no depth to the character of Emma. She’s a doctor with commitment issues. That’s it. Nothing else. Two hours of film and we know nothing else about her, other than the fact that she likes to sleep with Adam. The entire motivation for the character’s actions are that she is screwed up, but we are not shown any way that she actually is screwed up. We learn more about corpses before the first commercial in most episodes of “Law and Order” than we ever do about Emma.
I am tired of movies that apparently define falling in love as fucking a bunch in a montage. That’s not love. That’s sex. It’s especially egregious in a film that by design is supposed to be about that boundary. We can get a glimpse at the explanation for this from Ivan Reitman, who directed and produced the film, and he had this lovely nugget to sum up his approach: “I noticed from my own kids that with this generation in particular, young people find it easier to have a sexual relationship than an emotional one. That is how the sexes deal with each other today.” It’s truly amazing how the Baby Boomers can completely invent sex from scratch and then forty years later manage the stunning discovery via their grandchildren that young people have sex. Bravo.
The iron law of storytelling is show, don’t tell. We never see this couple fall in love. We see them have sex and then we see one of them say he’s in love. Reitman seems incapable of understanding that one doesn’t implicitly lead to another. It’s Friday evening right now, and millions of single (or not, as the case may be) Americans are heading out to bars at which many will manage to have sex. Most of them probably aren’t going to fall in love with each other. Thems the breaks. And if you’re going to tell a story about the exception, maybe you should try actually telling a story instead of stringing together montages and recycled jokes.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.