Who can blame moviegoers for being wary of any studio romantic comedy? While Fox Searchlight successfully subverted the genre with 500 Days of Summer and Disney's The Proposal proved that it is still possible to deliver the goods with smart filmmakers and stars, they are the exception that prove the rule: rom-coms usually suck.
Thus I was grateful that No Strings Attached wasn't that bad. I didn't want to flee the theater (see How Do You Know, The Dilemma). The two attractive, likeable stars (Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman) have chemistry, and plenty of R-rated, commitment-free sex (the premise is similar to the first half of Love & Other Drugs, which would have been better if no threatening illness was involved). (Reviews and trailer are after the jump.)
Kutcher's TV producer is in love with Portman's doctor, who doesn't want to get seriously entangled. The picture, written by Liz Meriwether and directed by Ivan Reitman, is funny and impeccably cast: Kevin Kline and Greta Gerwig offer stalwart support. At this point, I'll take it. The pic has little competition this weekend or next and is tracking to open respectably with women, many of them with dates in tow. Word-of-mouth will carry it from there.
Reitman tells Movieline: "I had Natalie Portman and Liz Meriwether and Ashton Kutcher, all these people who are defenders of the culture of today. And I wasn’t going to be arrogant about it. I was going to bring whatever my skills were to the very contemporary subject matter." But No Strings Attached doesn't exactly fit "into the mix" of R-rated comedies: "[It] is really quite different, it’s really a feminist-based R-rated film whose tonality is really different than the movies that Judd Apatow has made."
It's a new genre for Portman. Typical rom-coms offend her: “The girls are always in fashion, and it’s always about their clothes. They always want to get married at the end. There’s some kind of makeover scene. That stuff offends me.” Meriwether's script made No Strings Attached an exception for the Golden Globe-winning actress: “[Liz] writes women so specifically and smartly…My character is a woman who’s working, who’s trying to create her own construct for relationships, who’s funny herself — and isn’t just the girlfriend of a funny guy.”
Justin Chang at Variety:
"This genial if overlong romantic comedy bounces along on a steady stream of amusing moments, even as it presents the most polished and predictable version of a scenario that cries out for greater verbal and visual candor.
Rex Reed, The Observer:
"[Portman] crumbles like a mildewed crumpet…This movie could destroy everything….No wonder they're afraid of intimacy; everyone around them is a sex-crazed lunatic auditioning for a psychotherapist…The big twister: The farther they get from romance, the closer they get to craving each other 24/7. Duh. A five-minute plot stretches over two hours of tedium that gives you a royal pain in the sacroiliac. The stars have zero charisma. Sexy and petite, Ms. Portman outclasses her co-star in ways you can't even remember. Clumsy and superficial, Mr. Kutcher is mired in the kind of clueless, adolescent smirking that typified his obnoxious TV 'punching."'
Christy Lemire, AP:
"It's a reversal of traditional gender roles, and an indication that we might be in for something fresh, daring and different. Except, we're not…Portman is intelligent and confident here as she calls all the shots, and while Kutcher is in his usual agreeable puppy-dog mode…Nothing spectacular, but acceptable…[The ads] ask us to ponder whether friends can have sex and still remain just friends. The answer is never really in doubt, but No Strings Attached forces us to slog through all the usual misunderstandings, missed opportunities and potential extracurricular mates before we get there."
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter:
"Predictable, cutesy and nowhere near hot-blooded enough…Reitman and Meriwether shy away from the passionate side of sex, preferring to go for laughs by serving up a smorgasbord of goofy locations and funny positions in which the easy-on-the-eyes pair take their pleasure…Other than the story's obvious destination, the biggest problem is Adam's blandness and one-dimensionality…Meriwether gives the man absolutely nothing interesting to say and never for a moment does he seem like a writer who might have once struggled over the choice of a word, a plot or an idea…So it's left to Portman and a couple of the supporting actors to juice things up, which they do superficially but sufficiently to forestall total ennui."
Karina Longworth, The Village Voice:
"A shockingly good rom-com...Its thesis is that for those of us who are not, say, academics-turned-paranormal-exterminators or regular joes forced to impersonate a coma-bound president, love in itself can feel fairly high-concept… Elizabeth Meriwether's script is sharp when it's skewering the foibles of female insecurity. Emma and roommate Patrice (Greta Gerwig) are not the passive neurotics of so many contemporary chick flicks―they're aggressive and declarative, even when confused. They’re also frat-party veterans who are so unfamiliar with anything like traditional romance that when it comes along, they're not quite sure what to do with it…Very little happens in this film that couldn’t realistically happen in the lives of actual beautiful-but-brainy, non-obnoxiously moneyed and ambitious twentysomethings circa now, and at times, No Strings Attached feels almost shockingly attuned to the particular angst of its time and place."
Oliver Lyttelton, ThePlaylist:
"[It is] 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”…[Portman and Kutcher] 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…For the ‘friends with benefits’ premise to work, the pair need to be on an equal footing…[but] it’s clear that Adam, a full-on romantic, wants more from the relationship…as soon as the film sets up its premise, it starts going through the motions…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…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."