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Film Review: “No Strings Attached”

“No Strings Attached”
Dale Robinette

Lightweight sex romp plays like an R-rated sitcom in this friends-with-benefits comedy.

Predictable, cutesy and nowhere near hotblooded enough for a story about two friends with benefits who can’t keep their hands off each other, No Strings Attached barely squeaks by thanks to its larky depiction of a sex-by-appointment relationship.

In the type of blandly mainstream romantic comedy she has generally avoided, Natalie Portman works overtime to keep the leaky ship afloat, but Ashton Kutcher can’t be budged out of puppy-dog mode. Still, date- and girls’-night-out appeal is sufficient for Paramount to anticipate decent midwinter box-office returns for this rosy-cheeked (and occasionally exposed-cheeked) R-rated romp.

Returning from the longest hiatus of his career (his previous feature was the unheroic My Super Ex-Girlfriend, five years ago), director Ivan Reitman’s technique looks a little rusty, especially in the early going, as it’s clunkily established that Emma (Portman) and Adam (Kutcher) have had the potential to become bedbuds since he made an unseemly pubescent proposition 15 years earlier.

Grown up now in Los Angeles, Emma is a doctor in training, and Adam is a writer on a Glee-like TV show. In a grossly overdone interlude, he drinks himself senseless upon learning that his vapid girlfriend has taken up with his oft-married dad, former TV star Alvin (Kevin Kline). Awakening from his bender naked in the apartment Emma shares with three sitcom-ready roommates, Adam finally gets it on with this no-nonsense young lady, and she soon proposes they begin meeting for sex — but nothing more.

The mild twist in Elizabeth Meriwether’s screenplay is that it’s Adam who develops a craving to get serious — not Emma, who works 80 hours a week and claims she’s no good at real relationship stuff. For their part, Reitman and Meriwether shy away from the passionate side of sex, preferring to serve up a smorgasbord of goofy locations and funny positions in which the easy-on-the-eyes pair take their pleasure.

The obligatory complications in this easy arrangement are minor by classic sex-farce standards, among them Emma’s mistaken suspicion that Adam is cheating in a three-way and the latter’s fraught relationship with Alvin, who sees himself as his son’s friendly rival rather than as a father. But the real complication is love, Adam’s for Emma. Sweet as he is, Adam tries in the nicest way to move things to a higher plane, but she’ll have none of it — until she does, of course.

Other than the obviousness of the story’s destination, the biggest problem is Adam’s blandness and one-dimensionality. For this, the script and Kutcher’s performance would seem to share equal blame. Meriwether gives the man absolutely nothing interesting to say, and never for a moment does her male lead seem like a writer who might once have struggled over the choice of a word, plot or idea. Kutcher’s performance in Spread two years ago indicated he’s able to suggest the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the successful stud, and a hint of this would have been welcome here — as would anything else that might have made the character seem like something more than rice pudding with a nice head of hair.

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. Portman supplies enough tensile strength to Emma that you really believe she doesn’t want emotional involvement and isn’t pretending. Although the actress (also an executive producer on the film) doesn’t seem like a natural comedienne, her vibrant personality — not to mention her looks — ensures she’ll pop out of a crowd, even one made up of wisecracking comics and diverse physical types.

As a hypertalkative TV producer, Lake Bell nails a certain workaholic Hollywood type so accustomed to being in charge at work that she scarcely knows how to behave (or shut her mouth) during more relaxed, intimate moments. Kline, who 18 years ago starred for Reitman in Dave, is a perfect fit for his aging lothario but sorely could have used some better lines.           

Release date: Friday, Jan. 21 (Fox)
Cast: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Lake Bell
Director: Ivan Reitman
Producers: Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck, Jeffrey Clifford
Rated R, 108 minutes