2011 looks like it may be the year that Natalie Portman follows up her award-worthy performance in Black Swan with the Ivan Reitman directed romantic comedy No Strings Attached, pairing a serious and more ‘worthy’ film with something fluffier, presumably to cleanse herself of all the psychological trauma and baggage that comes with playing a demented ballerina. This has come to be known (by me) as the ‘Coens gambit’. The alternating of tones, I mean. Not the ballerina thing.
Portman’s co-star is Ashton Kutcher, who is, of course, famous both for being Bruce Willis’s son (apologies to Ricky Gervais) and for irritating other celebrities in MTV prank show Punk’d.
(A quick digression: the print of No Strings Attached I saw was accompanied by the trailer for Justin Bieber’s upcoming 3D concert film Never Say Never, a surprise that was met with audibly pained gasps of horror from the audience. The Kutcher-helmed Punk’d finished in 2007, but it was recently announced that the concept was due to be revived and reimagined, Batman Begins-style, with a new presenter at the helm, Justin Bieber. Such is the intricate tapestry of asinine 21st century pop bullshit.)
Kutcher plays Adam, a wannabe TV writer who is struggling to get his scripts noticed, at least without employing some serious nepotism on behalf of his dad (Kevin Kline), who happens to be a famous sitcom actor. When Adam discovers Dad has been sleeping with his ex-girlfriend, he gets paralysingly drunk and calls everybody in his phone book in desperate need of a rebound hook-up.
Eventually, he wakes up naked and on the sofa of Emma (Portman), a girl we have already been introduced to in a couple of rather pointless prologue scenes that seem to exist solely to employ a couple of child actors and give the cast the chance to wear some different clothes.
After some flirtatious teasing, Emma eventually grants him the steamy liaison he was after, and the two begin seeing each other on a regular basis.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Emma has ‘intimacy issues’ and just wants sex, no romance, no hand-holding, no hugging, and no learning. Adam, however, can’t help but wish things would go a little further. Yes, you read that right. The female lead in a romantic comedy is a commitment phobe, and the male lead is the one pushing for a relationship! Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!
This is the big hook of No Strings Attached, and while it doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it is quite good to see the conventions of the genre played with, even if it is only slightly, and to be presented with a relationship that doesn’t romanticise and sentimentalise sex to the ludicrous degree that most romantic comedies end up doing.
For a mainstream studio comedy, it does actually make a decent fist of presenting us with a believable relationship.
This is largely down to Natalie Portman’s performance, who is very convincing as a modern, career-focused woman who sees her sexual relationships as purely functional. It’s hard to convey this type of character (of which, I’d argue, there are just as many as there are Darcy-obsessed Bridget Joneses) without veering into slutty and /or ice maiden territory. But she does an excellent job in avoiding both, making you care about her. It doesn’t hurt that’s she gob-smackingly beautiful either, obviously.
Kutcher is a slightly different story. His acting has never really threatened to rise above the stoned frat guy act he’s been mining since Dude Where’s My Car, and he certainly doesn’t buck this trends here. He’s not a great romantic lead by any means, but his role in the film is clearly as cheeky eye candy, whatever my personal opinion of his attractiveness may be, letting Portman do the bulk of the dramatic heavy lifting.
Most importantly, the two leads do have good on-screen chemistry, and their first sex scene is genuinely pretty hot in a way on-screen sex rarely is, particularly in mainstream romcoms. Having said that, some of the more risqué content creates a bit of a tonal imbalance with the more standard romcom tropes. I never thought I’d say this, but I probably could have done with one less fingering gag.
Another problem with No Strings Attached is its waste of an excellent supporting cast, especially Kevin Kline, who, as one of the finest on-screen comedic performers ever, really should have been given stronger material to work with.
Cary Elwes is another great actor who is criminally wasted, playing a complete nothing of a character. He literally has about five lines, and none of them are funny! This is Westley we’re talking about. Show some respect, Reitman.
Also, as the film enters its final third, it begins to meander, before resolving itself with the kind of Hollywood sentimentality that it seems so eager to distance itself from in the early stages.
Despite its flaws, though, No Strings Attached is a solid romantic comedy with some decent laughs that is raised up a notch by Portman’s likable performance. If you’re not a fan of the genre, then it’s not going to win you over, but it’s charming in places and worth a look if you’re after some slightly less demanding fare.