Film Review: No Strings Attached

Attractive but laugh-deficient romantic comedy of two young people in L.A. trying to maintain a friends-with-benefits relationship.

We stand in the midst of booty-call cinema, with a plethora of pictures about young people hooking up for sex without commitment, only to find that they want something more. No Strings Attached, along with the 2009 indie Friends (With Benefits), the upcoming Justin Timberlake-Mila Kunis Friends with Benefits and the recent, tragedy-tinged Love and Other Drugs, all take the question posed by When Harry Met Sally… one further. That Nora Ephron-written, Rob Reiner-directed comedy questioned whether men and women can be friends without wanting to have sex. It just assumed that after sex there'd be emotional commitment. This latest batch of films doesn't wonder whether men and women can be friends without wanting to have sex—it assumes that they can and then wonders whether there has to be emotional commitment afterward. Given the free-love movement of the 1960s, the between-the-lines between-the-sheets of 1940s film noir, and the casual sexual attitudes of Roaring Twenties flappers, this question may be older than we think—doesn't every generation think they've discovered sex? Also raising children, but that's another story.

This story of No Strings Attached concerns an 80-hours-a-week medical resident, Emma Kurtzman (Natalie Portman), whose temperament and workload make the occasional, stress-relieving roll in the hay with handsome and nice TV-show production assistant Adam Franklin (Ashton Kutcher) just what the doctor ordered. Adam seemingly has more reason than she to be wary of relationships—his girlfriend Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond), who broke up with him months ago, is now living with Adam's former sitcom-star dad (Kevin Kline), who long ago divorced Adam's unseen and virtually never-referred-to mom. But pine for more he eventually does, with Portman doing her best to keep the come-closer-go-away emotional yo-yo that is Emma as sympathetic as possible. Since Emma is what guys generally refer to as a "psycho bitch"—and that's the polite version—the fact that Adam doesn't run away sooner from her emotional manipulation is a credit to Portman, whose performance in the current Black Swan shows a phenomenally talented dramatic actress.
But she's not particularly funny, and except for moments, neither is Kutcher, whose comic exuberance and timing even way back on "That ’70s Show" displayed his gifts for clowning. Here, he's a blandly nice saint of a guy, and never once feels real.

Where director Ivan Reitman and comic playwright turned first-time screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether do shine, however, is in the ensemble of friends. Newcomer Jake Johnson holds the screen as Adam's best bud and roommate Eli, and mumblecore star Greta Gerwig, as Emma's BFF, delights you with snarky intelligence in every raise of her eyebrow and compassionate smirk. Abby Elliott of "Saturday Night Live" (daughter of Chris Elliott, granddaughter of Bob Elliott) kills in every one of her few scenes, including one in which the actress contributes her patented impersonation of Drew Barrymore. And up-and-coming stunner Lake Bell, in contrast to her usual ingénue roles, here plays Adam's hot-nerd-girl co-worker, giving it maybe a touch of Ellen DeGeneres shtick but with a heartbreaking naturalness all the same. Yet even with these and other admirable qualities, we're really not sure we'd want to go home with this movie.