No Strings Attached is a very funny, very sexy movie. I wish I liked it more. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman star as 20-somethings who enter into a casual sexual relationship and try not to fall in love with each other. It’s a familiar concept in real life, regardless of your opinions, but it’s rarely given the big screen treatment, possibly for fear of turning off conservative audiences. I’m not saying that No Strings Attached had an obligation to treat the material with intelligence and respect, but it certainly had a rare opportunity and it kind of wastes it. I think you’ll laugh your ass off – and that’s enough, I suppose, for a positive review – but you’re still left with a movie that exploits an idea for its novelty yet never demonstrates any respect for it.
Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman play Adam and Emma, who have a history of missed connections dating back to summer camp. It’s not until their late 20’s that fate finally conspires to bring them together: She’s training to be a doctor and runs unreasonably long shifts at a hospital, leaving no room for a real relationship, and Adam’s on the rebound after learning that his ex-girlfriend is sleeping with his own father, a former sitcom star played by the wonderful Kevin Kline. The romantic leads have undeniable chemistry, since Kutcher has never been better (a true but suspect statement if I’ve ever written one) and Portman takes advantage of a rare opportunity to be funny. But after a gleeful montage of spicy bedroom shenanigans the plot soon sets about its business of ‘fixing’ Emma so she wants something ‘normal,’ and in doing so it gets pretty judgmental and a little unfair.
I’m not saying that ‘friends with benefits’ is a good idea or a bad one – I imagine every audience member will go in with their own notions, preconceived or experienced – but the movie only plays lip service to the notion that a sexual relationship without the pressure of commitment is possible. Lots of people flirt with the idea, but not all of them are as damaged as Emma is. She doesn’t have reasoned concerns about monogamy or committed relationships, she has a pathological fear of intimacy that sabotages her life at every turn, something even the love of the great Ashton Kutcher probably can’t cure all on its own. This is a woman who refers to her father’s funeral as “this stupid thing” she has to go to. At some point the movie explains that her problems stem back to her father’s death, implying that it’s a relatively late development in her life and comparatively easy to fix, but that’s a lie: it’s clearly an issue in her formative years. Comforting physical contact is an alien concept to her as far back as junior high.
Rather than present a casual sexual relationship as something reasoned adults can enter into, whether or not they decide it’s a bad idea, No Strings Attached presents its subject as something only emotionally unhealthy people embrace. What’s worse is that this prevents the film from exploring all the dramatic and comedic opportunities that stemmed from taking its subject seriously. Jealousy is a fleeting concern at best, since Emma and Adam never really test the relationship by acting on its openness. I suppose somebody thought the audience would never believe that our heroes belong together if Emma slept with Cary Elwes, a red herring who keeps showing up but has almost nothing to do or say, or if Adam had noticed or acted on the fact that his smart, beautiful and almost perfect co-worker Lake Bell is totally in love with him. So instead of dealing with any real or unique issues, No Strings Attached eventually settles in to being just another romantic comedy with a gimmick, whose plot revolves around showing its female protagonist the error of her ways through clichéd romantic tropes like sharing a milkshake or going mini-golfing.
But maybe I’m the only one who cares; and you’d be forgiven for not giving a damn since on the surface No Strings Attached is really, really funny. A great supporting cast featuring the likes of Greta Gerwig, Jake M. Thompson, Mindy Kaling and Ludacris hits all the right comedic marks, and memorable bits like Sam’s mix CD for Emma’s period (which includes “Evenflow” and “Red Red Wine”) show that the characters are infinitely more interesting that the typical romcom cast. If all you want is to laugh and watch pretty people canoodle half-naked, you’re in for a treat. But if you actually want No Strings Attached to step up its game and take advantage of a great idea, then you, my friend, will find little of benefit.
CRAVE Online Rating: 7 out of 10