Directed by Hollywood veteran Ivan Reitman, No Strings Attached is a romance with what its creators apparently believe is a daring contemporary twist: In this instance, it's the woman who is the commitment-phobic idiot who is just in it for the sex.
A lot of sharp lines from screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether and a strong supporting cast are often enough to make that premise pleasant if not exactly shocking.
Emma (Natalie Portman) is an overworked young medical resident who keeps bumping into Adam (Ashton Kutcher), a boy she once met at camp, now an aspiring screenwriter overshadowed by his TV-star father.
At one of these meetings, during a drunken frat party some years before the main action begins, Emma invites Adam to some "thing" she has to go to the next day, which turns out to be her father's funeral.
She has behaved oddly and inappropriately, yet he plays along sweetly and without complaint. And that's why, when they do finally hook up and agree (at her insistence) that it will only be physical, you know who it is who is going to break the pact and fall in love. There is no way in the world Mr. Twinkly Eyes and Soft Smiles is going to be the holdout here, even if the winsome Portman, fresh from the histrionic heights of Black Swan, seems an unlikely candidate to be playing an emotionally incompetent medic too busy fixing bodies to feel for the humans inside them.
Kutcher, meanwhile, is telegraphing incipient romance all over the place - I assume that is what Reitman believes is required in the role - although a bit more spine from the actor might have proven interesting.
So it's a flimsy premise - there's not exactly a lot of suspense as first great sex and then emotional complications ensue - but an intriguing one in that it relies entirely on psychology in a genre not known for complex motivations: Portman just has to make us believe in Emma's block. Mainly she does that, successfully crafting a character whose bluntness is wit, whose coolness is energetic and whose hypercompetence is its own kind of life force. It is actually her final descent into heartbreak that rings false, but by that point, tired of the latest limp complication thrown up by the script, you'll be glad enough that the happy ending is now in sight you'll probably forgive her.
On the other hand, as Adam, Kutcher merely exudes charm, whether seductive or injured, and only starts acting in the few climactic scenes in which he abandons the puppy-dog look and manages his own bit of bitterness.
Meanwhile, Meriwether's slightly off-centre humour - Adam tells Emma she eats like a baby dinosaur; Adam's rival, a self-satisfied doctor, says he'll win Emma by "using big words and saving lives" - keeps things sufficiently unbalanced to make the comedy highly engaging. A lot of that success is thanks to an excellent supporting cast full of delightful character work: Kevin Kline plays Adam's insufferable dad; Ophelia Lovibond plays the outrageous ex-girlfriend who his dad then snags; Lake Bell plays the neurotically chatty colleague who pines for Adam; Jake Johnson plays his smart-ass best pal, matched by Greta Gerwig bringing a light screwball touch to Emma's roommate. They all nicely round out the movie so that it need not rely exclusively on its stars or its plot.
Woman overheard leaving the movie: "That was sooo cute!"
Man overheard leaving the movie: "That was better than I expected."
The verdict is clear: No Strings Attached is not half bad for a formulaic rom-com.
No Strings Attached
- Directed by Ivan Reitman
- Written by Elizabeth Meriwether
- Starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher
- Classification: 14A