‘No Strings Attached’ movie review: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher rom-com

There are two films competing for attention in Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached: one is a moderately interesting character study about a woman with a fear of intimacy, the other a standard-level romantic comedy based off an ultra-thin premise. Guess which wins out?

Yes, No Strings Attached is all about the casual sex, “friends with benefits” relationship and what happens when – shock, horror – one of the parties falls for the other, or they both fall for each other, and things start to get weird. Coming this fall: Friends with Benefits, starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. Hot topic, I guess.

This premise was, I think, successfully explored in an episode of Seinfeld, which might have used about one-third of a 22-minute runtime on the subject. Things get weird; there aren’t too many other directions you can take this story. Yet No Strings pads it out to 100 minutes, filling up the dead space with an abundance of subplots that are actually far more interesting than the main storyline.

The friends who agree to participate in this are Adam (Ashton Kutcher, who we expect in this kind of thing) and Emma (Natalie Portman, whose presence here is dumbfounding), casual friends who have known each other since summer camp. 

After a night of debauchery finds Adam naked on Emma’s couch, the two jump right in. “You wanna do this?” Emma casually asks. “Use each other for sex?” I had real difficulty buying those lines from Ms. Portman.

There’s something vaguely sleazy about this setup (wait – I think I know what it is) that automatically distances us from the main characters; when they start to have real feelings for each other, we’re not as invested in them as we ought to be. They’ve already done the dirty deed, in starkly realistic, businesslike terms, and now they want the magical Hollywood romance?

Subplots all trump the trite premise, including an actual romance, which exists only in the background of some scenes, between best friend characters played by Greta Gerwig and Jake Johnson; I cared more about them than the leads. 

Also: Emma, as a doctor in training, making googly eyes at Dr. Metzner (Cary Elwes – fourth billed but barely in the film, likely a subplot casualty); Alex’s celebrity father (Kevin Kline), who is dating his ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond); and Alex’s day job working on the set of a High School Musical-like production, where a nice girl (Lake Bell) is interested in him.

Better than anything else here is an actual examination of the Emma character, who persists with the casual sex thing because she’s afraid of true intimacy; but while her story is hinted at throughout, it gets only a cursory glance and a brief, packaged explanation at the end. Surely, that’s what drew Portman to the project – there’s nothing else here to merit her interest. 

Coming right on the back of her Oscar win for Black Swan, this is the first true rom-com on her resume, and it couldn’t be more generic. On the flip side is Kutcher, who we expect to see in these films; playing a mostly likable character without any real problems, he’s especially bland.

Director Reitman previously made Stripes, Ghostbusters, and other above-average comedies in the 80s and 90s before his career was just about killed by the megabomb Evolution; in the past 10 years, his only other film has been My Super Ex-Girlfriend. He brings a workmanlike craft to No Strings Attached, but Elizabeth Meriwether’s screenplay – a formula rom-com minus much of the romance and comedy – doesn’t give him much to work with.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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