Title: No Strings Attached,
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Director: Ivan Reitman
Screenwriters: Elizabeth Meriwether
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline
No Strings Attached, a movie about two attractive twentysomethings (Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman) who decide to try a “friends with benefits” arrangement, is directed by Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) with the swagger of someone making a comedy classic, or at least a legit Apatow-ian riot. Whatever else can be said about the film, it cannot be accused of not trying: there are enough plot complications and quirky background details here to fill a half dozen January rom-coms. The only problem is that it doesn’t work. Here’s a movie that’s easy to review, but harder to review insightfully. No Strings Attached would be better if it were funnier.
Take, for example, the tradition of the Funny Best Friend. Usually, only the protagonist gets the honor of having a Funny Best Friend, but since No Strings Attached spends roughly equal time with Kutcher’s Adam (a production assistant and aspiring writer on a Glee-like television show) and Portman’s Emma (a harried medical student), both are bestowed with the honor. In fact, they each get several, but let’s keep things simple. Emma’s best friend Patrice, played by indie queen Greta Gerwig, is legitimately funny — just the sight of her getting unwillingly pecked on both cheeks by a touchy-feely European early in the film is gold. On the other hand, Adam’s best friend Eli, played by Jake M. Johnson, has nothing going for him. He is irritating and kind of unpleasant. His main thing is that he was raised by two gay dads, which he announces in his first scene and repeats several times thereafter. I’d say that this is the new culturally aware alternative to the Gay Best Friend — except that No Strings Attached has one of those, too.
This epitomizes the problem. There’s a whole lot of stuff packed into No Strings Attached, but the hit rate hovers around maybe 30%. A lot of the jokes that whiff are the weird, manic ones that were clearly meant to be memorable highlights, but instead reek of desperation. Another example: Adam’s dad is a rich former sitcom star with a lame catchphrase (“Great Scott!”) who, to Adam’s horror, begins dating Adam’s ex-girlfriend. He is played by Kevin Kline as a wacky and kind but blithely inconsiderate hippie. It’s offbeat and high-energy, but stubbornly, mysteriously unfunny. Exhausting to watch a movie try so hard with so little to show for it.
There is, of course, another reason that Kevin Kline is in this movie: to highlight Adam’s self-esteem issues. Adam has a chip on his shoulder, determined to make his own way without his father’s money and connections. Emma, who drives Adam crazy by insisting that their sex buddies thing not cross over into relationship territory, has parental issues too — we’re informed that her fear of emotional intimacy comes from her insistence of being strong for her mother after the death of her father. Yes, this is all precisely as tedious as it sounds — perhaps more so since neither Kutcher nor Portman is the kind of comic powerhouse who can transcend this material.
Compounding these issues is the fact that No Strings Attached is long; really long; unbearably so at 110 minutes. By the two-thirds mark, I wanted very badly for the film to stop taking its supposedly goofy and endearing digressions and make a beeline for the finish. This sort of overlong, pointlessly frenetic, half-baked comedic stew is, sadly, typical of Ivan Reitman’s recent work, with the possible exception of the fleet and funny My Super Ex-Girlfriend. No Strings Attached at least isn’t lazy, but its brand of unimaginative overkill may be something worse.