Sunday, May 22, 2011

No Strings Attached

Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Greta Gerwig, Cary Elwes, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Kline, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Ludacris
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

If you're counting, No Strings Attached is the second of about 75 Natalie Portman movies released within the past three months. But that's okay. While most other actors or actresses' careers would greatly suffer from such overexposure (see Jude Law circa '04), Portman's an exception. I'm not sure it's possible for her to be overexposed given how much goodwill she's built up with moviegoers who seem to feel she can do no wrong. In my mind though, she actually needs to clock in all this work to justify the massive hype that's surrounded her for years. That's why taking a formulaic romantic comedy like this doesn't feel like a step down, if only because it's something different and presents the opportunity for her to stretch in a way she hasn't previously. Unlike others, it's advisable for her to "sell out" a little.

It's a credit to Portman that my expectations for what would normally be a fluffy, throwaway chick flick were somewhat high going in. Mostly, I was curious if she'd be able to strike while the iron's hot and capitalize on her recent Black Swan Oscar win, showing she's finally turned a corner and evolved into the multi-faceted actress her fans have often incorrectly asserted she's been throughout her career. Based on the evidence here, she's at least on her way. Natalie has a spark to her in this I've never seen. And she's actually funny. In fact, I was so taken by her she almost tricked me into thinking the movie works. It doesn't. At least not completely. Parts of it do and there are these little moments that are really smart and nail what it's like to be single in your late twenties-early thirties. But it starts off on the wrong foot and has a tough time recovering after that, as the script tries to jam in to many characters and do too much when it only really needs to focus on one thing.

Emma (Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are childhood friends from camp who keep bumping into each other every few years. They reconnect again as adults when Emma is a resident at a local hospital and aspiring screenwriter Adam works as an assistant on a Glee-like TV show. When his father, famous former sitcom star Alvin Franklin (Kevin Kline), steals his girlfriend a drunk Adam goes through his cell phone looking for any one night stand he can find before waking up naked in Emma's apartment which she shares with three roommates. Both agree to an arrangement where they meet and have casual sex with no strings attached. As long as they're clear on the rules and it can't lead to anything more, then no one gets hurt. Interestingly, Adam is the one interested in taking things to the next level while the fiercely independent Emma is terrified of anything even slightly resembling a relationship and says she doesn't believe in love. The more Adam tries the more she pushes him away. If you've seen any romantic comedy you know where this is going, and more or less exactly how long it'll take to get there. Longer than it should.

The film makes its first mistake early in how it presents the "friendship" between its two lead characters. Needlessly skipping through time with three flashback sequences in a span of only a few minutes, they meet up, lose touch, meet up again, lose touch then finally meet up again for the story to start. As a result they seem more like acquaintances than friends, occasionally bumping into each other every five years or so. When they do sleep together and begin their arrangement we hardly care since they're essentially strangers. The opening minutes would have been better spent with one brief flashback sequence establishing them as friends since childhood so when they do hook up as adults it means more and the stakes are higher. It's a clumsy decision that seems minor on the surface but it affects the rest of the narrative, preventing me from fully engaging in the premise. It'll be interesting to see if the upcoming Friends With Benefits with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis makes the same crucial error. This takes a page out of the book of the recent, very similar Love and Other Drugs in that we have a jaded, cynical lead female character afraid to take the plunge into a relationship, a popular plot device lately and a reversal from the days when movies taught us that only guys can't commit. And like Love and Other Drugs, it tries to shoehorn an R-rated sex romp into a fluffy rom-com, though this doesn't have that film's heavy, depressing sub-plot and the tone doesn't fluctuate as wildly.

Looking as relaxed and comfortable on screen as she ever has, Portman knows the kind of movie she's in and isn't asked to do anything too crazy, which suits her just fine. A far cry from the manic pixie twerp she played in Garden State, Emma is a confident, intelligent woman realistically struggling with doubts and insecurities and Portman brings a certain warmth and sophisticated humor to the role. It won't go down as a great performance per se since she isn't asked to do anything incredibly taxing, but it may be more important than that in showcasing a different side to her as a performer we haven't seen. Who knew she could not only star in goofy chick flicks with Ashton Kutcher and actually enhance the material? As for Kutcher, the recent Sheen surrogate is like a bump on a log in this, failing to transmit even so much as a trace of charisma. A male model could have stood in for him and it probably wouldn't have made much of a difference in the film's overall quality, and that's coming from someone who doesn't actively dislike him as an actor and was curious how he'd fare opposite her. It still takes two to create chemistry and there's only so much Portman can do without any help. The decision to focus on both characters rather than take a point of view and present the far more interesting Emma as the true lead is a mistake, so we're left with a bunch of your typical supporting story threads, slightly more entertaining than usual due to the talent involved. Kevin Kline is funny as the philandering TV dad while the delightful Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling, both of whom could easily be headlining their own movies instead of supporting Portman, get a few moments as the underwritten friends jammed in for comic relief. Lake Bell plays Adam's boss, or the "other woman" brought in at the eleventh hour to cause a relationship rift, but bonus points for casting her against type as a socially inept geek. In an even weirder bit of casting, a nearly unrecognizable Cary Elwes shows up every now and again as a doctor whose function to the story is ridiculously unclear. His appearances are so randomly pointless they're almost a distraction, as if an entire sub-plot involving him was left on the cutting room floor, maybe next to the foot he sawed off the last time he played a physician.

Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the odd Portman/Kutcher pairing is the fact that this was directed by Ivan Reitman. Whether this bit of information was downplayed to salvage his reputation or not is irrelevant since it isn't that bad, thanks mostly to a glowing Natalie Portman, who gives this character a life far more interesting than the one supplied by the script. Despite its "R" rating this project was supposedly much edgier when it made the rounds in pre-production so I'm curious if concessions were made to appeal to a broader audience once the two stars jumped on board. You can feel a less formulaic rom-com struggling to break through, most notably when the two characters go on a miniature golf date that leads to the film's funniest moment. Then everything settles back into a predictably mainstream groove, dragging to its wimpy finish. No Strings Attached may be a slight misfire, but it's a brilliant career move for Portman, who shows her range and deserves credit for trying to challenge herself with a part you'd think would be outside her comfort zone.


Fred [The Wolf] said...

Great review. I wasn't interested in this, but now I'm willing to take a chance on it. It'll be an interesting comparison to that Timberlake/Kunis film, FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS. I guess the good ol' sex buddy is the new relationship these days - not that there's anything wrong with that.

jeremythecritic said...

Thanks. A near-miss for me but maybe worth checking out if you're in the mood. Ironically, just the trailer for "Friends With Benefits" implies it could have a better understanding of this suddenly popular premise, which is where I felt this dropped the ball. We'll see I guess.