No Strings Attached *
With the 2011 awards season in full swing and numerous actors and actresses in line to see their careers gain a major shot in the arm as a result of their nominations and/or wins at the big awards, there is one star who seems to have gained more than most – Natalie Portman. The combined commercial, critical and awards success for Black Swan has seen Natalie Portman suddenly transformed into one of the hottest properties in Hollywood and her follow-up film to Black Swan has proven to be a major beneficiary of her increased popularity. Released in the states in January, No Strings Attached – for which Portman also gets an executive producer credit – had been virtually written off as a flop before it had even been released by its studio and it isn’t exactly hard to see why.
After all, co-star Ashton Kutcher’s last romantic comedy, summer 2010’s Killers co-starring Katherine Heigl, was a bit of a stinker at the box office and lately romantic comedies, especially adult ones carrying the American R rating such as last year’s Love & Other Drugs which starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, have been performing extremely unremarkably at the box office. Yet No Strings Attached, bolstered by Natalie Portman’s newfound status at the top of Hollywood, became a surprise hit there, turning its small $25 million production budget and earning nearly $70 million to date, not bad for a film that was expected to flop badly and also a film that received a somewhat lukewarm reception from critics – although moviegoers have been far more receptive. Box office success aside, the quality of the film is something much more dubious. As evidenced by the film’s popularity in the states, moviegoers clearly are enjoying it but such blending of the romantic comedy and sex comedy – to give an idea of what the film is actually about the original title was F*** Buddies which was changed for obvious reasons while it second title, Friends With Benefits also has to be done away with because another film is being released with the same title later this year, starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake – sub-genres as is attempted here, and was also attempted in Love & Other Drugs, doesn’t always work and the credentials behind the film are very uneven. For instance, Natalie Portman may be riding the wave of her awards attention right now but Ashton Kutcher, while often proving quite adept in romantic comedy roles, rarely does anything more than what we have seen from him many times before. Also, screenwriter Elizabeth Meriweather is the latest in a long line of writers with no actual film experience to do the screenplay for a romcom and director Ivan Reitman, while once being the great filmmaker behind the Ghostbusters films, has more recently been associated with 2006’s mediocre My Super Ex-Girlfriend. As you would probably expect No Strings Attached is a film that clearly aims to deliver no strings attached – apart from the cost of the cinema ticket of course – entertainment but does it achieve this?
Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) have been friends a long time. Emma is a busy doctor with no time for romance and a major fear of commitment and Adam is, well, just Adam, a man with big dreams and an even bigger heart but whose life isn’t necessarily headed in a forward direction. Despite one near romantic encounter at camp fifteen years ago, it seems like friends is all they will ever be. Or is it? After discovering that his father Alvin (Kevin Kline) is sleeping with his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond), Adam goes in search of a woman to have a one night stand with and a series of events leads to him and Emma sleeping together, their sexual encounter forever altering the dynamic of their friendship. Instead of giving on their friendship, however, they decide that they are going to become “sex friends” and continue sleeping together without any emotional attachment. Adam’s friends Eli (Jake Johnson) and Wallace (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) tell him that he has got what every man dreams of having and for a while Adam believes it too. As time progresses, however, and as he witnesses Eli form a romance with Emma’s friend Patrice (Greta Gerwig), Adam finds himself wanting more and developing deep romantic feelings for Emma but, even with the impending wedding of her sister Katie (Olivia Thirlby) stirring up feelings within her, she doesn’t seem to reciprocate the feelings. Or does she? Pushing Adam away like every other man she has ever been involved with, it seems like Adam might just move on and form a relationship with work colleague Lucy (Lake Bell). Does Emma really just want sex or does she share the same feelings for Adam that he has for her? Whatever the case, time is running out for her to reach out for what she really wants.
It really is hard to believe that No Strings Attached is directed by the same man who brought us Ghostbusters. That film was a classic that is well loved even now 27 years on. This film, on the other hand, is just another bad romantic comedy that probably won’t even be remembered 27 minutes after seeing it. Ivan Reitman – who gives himself a self indulgent cameo as a TV director here – really has lost it. All the ingredients for a great romantic comedy are certainly present here and it is even clear that some attempt has been made to do something a bit different but, alas, this film just ends up falling into the same traps as so many other recent Hollywood romantic comedies. Reitman’s direction lacks sparkle, the film largely lacking in things like charm and warmth, the ingredients that make up a truly memorable romantic comedy and he certainly isn’t helped by the writing. The screenwriter with no film experience delivers a screenplay that is entirely indicative of her lack of experience, the plot dealing with some themes that differ from the norm for a romcom but ultimately veering back onto a very predictable path, the dialogue mostly being flat and unmemorable, the characters generally being hard to really care about – so much so that scenes taking place between Adam and his father, which seem to be included in an attempt to add some emotional depth, prove to be just a rather dull distraction – and, most importantly given that this is supposed to be a comedy, there being very few laughs to be had anywhere, the humour – or what passes for it – generally being very crude (although only suggestively) as you would expect from a film where sex plays such a major role but generally not being very funny. With the sexual nature of the film also comes lots of sex scenes and lots of nudity – this definitely isn’t a film to see with your parents – on the part of both Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher and these generally seem to take the place of actual romance and genuine development of the central characters, us not seeing much outside of their bedroom antics to suggest why they really belong together and the film generally not feeling very romantic. The central romance, as a result, isn’t especially convincing and you know things are really not right when you find yourself more interested in a secondary romance between two supporting players – Eli and Patrice – that barely gets any screen time than in the central romance that is supposed to be the focus of the film. There is a general feel of unevenness to the whole thing and, despite the running time not being especially long, the film does start to drag after a while, not helped by the fact that the comedic and more serious elements never really manage to come together as one. To make matters worse, weak material makes for so-so acting. Natalie Portman is hardly in Oscar worthy form but, particularly given the weak material she has to work with here, fares very well and proves very entertaining in her role. Ashton Kutcher, meanwhile, just acts like himself as in pretty much every other romantic comedy he is in and fails to stand out in any notable way. As for the way the interact on screen, while it isn’t hard to buy them as “friends with benefits”, there really isn’t a whole lot of chemistry between Portman and Kutcher to make a more meaningful relationship truly believable – I personally thought there was more chemistry between Jake Johnson and Greta Gerwig. As for the rest of the cast, most of the supporting players are wasted but there are a few noteworthy performances. Kevin Kline is reasonably amusing but ultimately wasted as Adam’s laid back and philandering father, an oddly placed Ophelia Lovibond is well cast as Adam’s immature ex-girlfriend and Lake Bell proves quite entertaining also. Also of note are Stefanie Scott and Dylan Hayes, the young actors cast to play the younger versions of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, who are well cast and Scott, in particular, looks uncannily like the older version of her character. Unfortunately, though, no one in the cast really stands out and, while the film does have its moments – a scene that sees Emma and Adam go on their first actual date, for instance, proves quite sweet – it is hard to overlook the many flaws. Apart from lashings of sex scenes and frequent instances of nudity, there really is little to distinguish this film from the countless other bad romantic comedies that have been released in the past year. All the potential for a great romantic comedy is evident but the film lacks the charm that would it make it so and if you do go to see No Strings Attached you will find that there most definitely are strings attached – in addition to the cost of the cinema ticket, the 1 hour 45 minutes of your life that you will lose watching it.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)