starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, Lake Bell, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Cary Elwes, Olivia Thirlby, Talia Balsam, Jake M. Johnson, Abby Elliott
directed by: Ivan Reitman
MPAA: Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material.
No Strings Attached comes to theaters this weekend with a fair amount of doom and dismay attached to its dubious arrival. For one thing, as has been widely pointed out, there is another romantic comedy with a nearly identical fuck-buddy premise being released later this year, Friends With Benefits. And while Attached may be getting here first, Benefits will feature what I think we can all agree is a much hipper and sexier couple (Justin Timberlake and Portman’s Black Swan costar Mila Kunis).
In addition to being the Deep Impact to Justin and Mila’s Armageddon, No Strings Attached also has the unfortunate reputation as Natalie Portman’s own personal Norbit. To explain: in the Best Supporting Actor race a few years back, Eddie Murphy was long considered a shoo-in for his career-best work in Dreamgirls. But then he insisted on releasing yet another of his cosmically embarrassing multi-character comedies, Norbit, and ultimately lost the Oscar to boring old Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. The dominant theory was that Norbit cost him the award.
So now, here we are, five weeks away from this year’s Academy Awards, and Portman is the highly favored Best Actress front-runner for her grueling work in Black Swan. But just one thing has the potential to stand between her and that Oscar: No Strings Attached. Well, also the trailer for her upcoming stoner comedy Your Highness. Portman has picked an unfortunate time to discover her comedic side. So, is No Strings Attached bad enough to warrant all this concern? Will poor Annette Bening finally get to walk to that podium?
No! Not at all! Sit down, Annette Bening! No Strings Attached is a perfectly cute and charming rom-com, anchored almost entirely by Portman’s smart, funny performance. She stars as Emma, a young doctor who has neither the time nor interest for a relationship. But she does like to get banged from time to time, which leads her to an old friend, Adam (Ashton Kutcher, perfectly cast as a grinning dope who’s only good for sex).
Adam is an underused writer on a High School Musical-style TV series. He and Emma first met at summer camp in their teens, and have had sporadic cameos in each other’s lives in the fifteen years since that summer. But when Adam goes on a drunken bender after his last girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond) starts dating his famous-actor father (Kevin Kline), he wakes up to find himself naked in Emma’s apartment, surrounded by her three roommates (The Office‘s Mindy Kaling, Greenberg‘s Greta Gerwig, and Chelsea Lately comedian Guy Branum), whom despite also being doctors, are somehow forced to share an apartment with three other people.
One thing leads to another, and soon Emma and Adam have decided to embark on a strictly sexual relationship. Emma controls the comings and goings, if you will, as her schedule is more demanding. Plus she’s just a lot smarter and more aggressive than Adam. But this being a rom-com and all, you can safely bet that Emma and Adam won’t be able to keep their emotions at bay forever, and soon they’ll be forced to address the feelings they’ve developed while doing all that sex to each other.
Yes, it’s predictable. But the script, by Elizabeth Meriwether, at least gives us refreshingly smart and commanding female characters. Emma and her friends are intelligent and accomplished, even though it’s maybe a bit cliché that they’re doctors. They’re also not cookie-cutter Hollywood starlets masquerading as smart girls. This isn’t The Sweetest Thing.
Emma is never forced to choose between Adam and her career or otherwise compromise herself, even after [SPOILER ALERT!] she inevitably falls in love with him [END OF SPOILER!]. And while some of the credit goes to Meriwether’s script, the main reason No Strings Attached works as well as it does is because of Portman. In her first rom-com romantic lead, she rescues what could have easily been yet another shitty Katherine Heigl role with her ferocious wit and self-awareness. It is also a pleasure for the audience to finally sit back and watch her have fun for once, after spending the last decade seeing her get put through the ringer in film after film, culminating in her most masochistic role yet (Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Also, Black Swan).
Portman is ably supported by an impressive cast. In addition to funny and endearing performances from Kline, Kaling, and Gerwig, we are also treated to the wonderful Olivia Thirlby (Juno, The Wackness) as Emma’s sister, and the very funny Lake Bell (Children’s Hospital), gorgeous looks clumsily hidden She’s All That-style behind glasses and unstyled hair, as a friend of Adam’s who is perfectly willing to claim him as her boyfriend if Emma doesn’t step up. As for Kutcher, who has perhaps never been more outclassed by a costar than here by Portman, the best I can say is that he doesn’t get in the way of his fine female costars.
No Strings Attached is lighthearted, female-powered romantic comedy that spotlights Natalie Portman’s long-dormant comedic side. After a long string of flops, this is arguably director Ivan Reitman’s strongest work since…I guess Six Days Seven Nights? It’s all relative with Reitman. But despite this film’s raunchy marketing, audiences shouldn’t expect much in the way of steamy antics. Portman’s clock was rocked much harder by Mila Kunis.
RIYL: rom-coms, chick flicks, Natalie Portman