Predictable, cutesy and nowhere near hot-blooded enough for a story about two friends with benefits who can't keep their hands off one another, "No Strings Attached" just barely squeaks by due to its larky depiction of the management of a sex-by-appointment relationship.
In the sort 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. Date and girls' night out appeal is sufficient for Paramount to anticipate decent mid-winter box-office returns for this rosy-cheeked (and occasionally exposed-cheeked) R-rated romp.
Returning from the longest hiatus of his career (his last 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 been potential bedbuds ever since he made an unseemly pubescent proposition 15 years earlier.
Grown-up now in Los Angeles, Emma is a doctor-in-training while Adam is a writer on a Glee-like TV show who, in a grossly overdone interlude, drinks himself senseless upon learning that his vapid girlfriend has taken up with his much-married dad, former TV star Alvin (Kevin Kline). Awakening from his bender naked in the apartment Emma shares with three sitcom-ready roommates, Adam takes advantage of his natural state by finally getting it on with this no-nonsense young lady, who soon proposes they regularly meet for sex but nothng more.
No guy is going to turn down a deal like that, but the mild twist in Elizabeth Meriwether's screenplay is that it's Adam who craves getting serious, not Emma, who works 80 hours per 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 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.
The obligatory complications in this easy arrangement are minor by classic sex farce standards, among them Emma's misperception of a cheating three-way involving Adam and the latter's fraught relationship with Alvin, who would like to think of himself as the young man's friendly rival rather than as his father. But the real complication is love, Adam's for Emma, and her rejection of its viability. 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 story's obvious destination, the biggest problem is Adam's blandness and one-dimen sionality. 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 he seem like a writer who might have once struggled over the choice of a word, a plot or an idea. Kutcher's performance in Spread two years ago indicated he's able to suggest the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the successful stud who knows how to satisfy a woman. A hint of this trait would have been welcome here, as would have 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 just pretending. While the actress (who's also an executive producer here) doesn't seem like a natural comedienne, her vibrant personality, not to mention her looks, insures that she'll pop out of a crowd, even one made up of wisecracking comics and diverse physical types.
As a hyper-talkative 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) in more relaxed, intimate moments. Kline, who starred for Reitman in Dave 18 years ago, is a perfect fit for his aging Lothario but could sorely have used some better lines.
Release date: Friday, January 21 (Fox)
Production: Cold Spring Pictures, Spyglass Entertainment, Montecito Picture Company
Cast: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Cary Elwes, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Ludacris, Jake Johnson, Mindy Kaling, Talia Balsam, Ophelia Lovibond
Director: Ivan Reitman
Screenwriter: Elizabeth Meriwether, story by Mike Samonek, Meriwether
Proucers: Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck, Jeffrey Clifford
Executive producers: Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Jonathan Glickman, Natalie Portman, Tom Pollock
Cinematographer: Rogier Stoffers
Production designer: Ida Random
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Editor: Dana E. Glauberman
Music: John Debney
Rating: R, 108 minutes