It's fair to say that the state of the modern romantic-comedy is a dismal one. In the era of "Leap Year," "The Ugly Truth" and "Confessions of a Shopaholic" -- where the heroes and heroines behave in a way unrecognizable to actual human beings, the plots are interchangable and contrived, and the comedy, and indeed the romance, are nowhere to be found -- it's tempting to give the merely average likes of "Definitely Maybe" or "(500) Days of Summer" a pass, simply for having likable characters or a few interesting scenes.
Coming from a Black Listed, genuinely funny (and occasionally insightful) script from Diablo Cody pal Elizabeth Meriwether, and starring and produced by current belle-of-the-ball Natalie Portman, we originally had a glimmer of hope for "No Strings Attached." Sure, himbo Ashton Kutcher was playing the male lead, and the long-off-his-game Ivan Reitman was directing, but a very solid supporting cast were in place behind Portman -- with lowered expectations, maybe it'd provide a date movie that doesn't make you want to cave in your own skull half way through? I mean, at least Katherine Heigl wasn't in it, right?
Sadly, while the finished film is several rungs up the ladder from the very worst recent examples of the genre, it's also quite a way off the not-even-very-high bar of the better recent rom-coms, let alone classics like "When Harry Met Sally" (an obvious inspiration). Rarely a truly unpleasant experience, but never a memorable one, it mostly feels beneath its talented cast, and doesn't suggest anything close to a comeback for Reitman as he heads towards "Ghostbusters III"
Emma (Portman) and Adam (Kutcher) have known each other for most of their lives, occasionally crossing paths and showing a little spark together. When Adam goes on a drunken binge after discovering that his father (Kevin Kline) is now dating his ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond), he wakes up naked in Emma's apartment, and the two end up sleeping together. Emma's not really into relationships, though, and two agree to become 'fuck buddies' -- maintaining a friendship, and having regular sex, without ever letting love enter the equation. Can it last? Don't be stupid.
There are many, many problems with "No Strings Attached," so it's probably easier to start with the biggest -- namely, that the central relationship is entirely unbalanced. For the 'friends with benefits' premise to work, the pair need to be on an equal footing, but from the first moment, it's clear that Adam, a full-on romantic, wants more from the relationship, and so the story becomes more about Emma's commitment phobia than anything else; and we can all agree that that's a fairly well-trodden path -- as soon as the film sets up its premise, it starts going through the motions.
It's one of a number of aspects of the film that smacks of it having been studio-noted to death; aside from one early montage, there's actually not a great deal of sex in the film, and what there is has been stripped of the frankness and vulgarity of Meriwether's original draft, for the most part. Furthermore, any emotional complications that were present are gone: what should be a messy, difficult situation is in fact a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship in all but name, with the possibility of sleeping with other people (which both characters did in early drafts) all but absent, presumably in the interest of making the characters more 'relatable.'
Overall, it's an uneasy meld of an Apatow-style R-rated swearfest and something closer to a sitcom, with the tone veering wildly from scene to scene, depending on which actors are on screen -- Kline and Lovibond in particular seem to be in a different, much broader film, while Jake Johnson's boorish best friend could have been lifted straight from "Knocked Up"
Any talk of the film being a "Norbit"-style spoiler for Portman's Oscar chances is misplaced -- it certainly isn't that bad, and the actress is actually quite good in it, funnier and more winning than she's been allowed to be on screen in a while. If the film has any emotional resonance, and that's debatable, it's thanks to her, making the character's closed-off nature seem entirely plausible.
Generally, the cast are fine, one of the film's principle redeeming features, even if most of the actors are underused. Kutcher's as blandly inoffensive as usual -- it's hard to take a real dislike to him, but it's hard to care that much either. On the plus side, Ludacris displays solid comic timing and Greta Gerwig acquits herself decently in her mainstream debut, even if she becomes progressively more milquetoast as it goes on. On the minus, Cary Elwes has an entirely inexplicable cameo (it seems like there's plenty of material on the cutting room floor, which is odd considering the film feels overlong as it is), while Olivia Thirlby is both perfectly cast and entirely wasted as Portman's sister. Easily the best performance comes from Lake Bell, as an awkward colleague of Kutcher's with designs on him -- she sells almost every line she's given, creating one of the few fresh-feeling characters in the picture, at least until the film cruelly sells her up the river at the end in order to reunite its leads -- something which leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
There are some good lines and jokes, and it is well photographed, although John Debney's frankly hideous score is unfortunate. It's not a pain to sit through, just a chore -- it might be better than most contemporary rom-coms, or most of Reitman's output of the last 25 years, but not by much in either case, and it's still something of a hollow victory; at best, it's roughly equivalent to watching five below-average, unusually star-studded episodes of "How I Met Your Mother" back to back.
Hopefully Meriwether's next script won't be so watered down (although, as the sole credited writer, she has to take some culpability in this) -- she's an original voice, and it's sad to see the edges filed off like this. In the meantime, anyone hoping for a decent comedy about friends with benefits is better off waiting for, well, "Friends With Benefits," from "Easy A" director Will Gluck, which hits in the summer. But if you really can't wait, "No Strings Attached" is in theaters from Friday. Just remember, there are literally dozens of better options. [C-]