No Strings Attached (Reitman, 2011)

Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher

This is not one of those reviews that is really all that much about the movie, which, I will admit, was fine, by which, I mean, that I laughed loud enough and often enough that I wasn’t seriously perturbed by the fact that I didn’t believe a second of it. I don’t feel too grinch-like in saying I didn’t believe the film since the film doesn’t really believe itself. It offers up excuses for its characters rather than motivations, treating its subject matter (casual sex) as a situation rather than a subject.

To give just one example of what I mean Emma (Natalie Portman) has a job at a hospital where, she complains, she works eighty hours a week. This is one reason why she needs a friend with benefits (Kutcher, as Adam) but has no energy to invest in, you know, a relationship (by which she means, apparently, one in which a guy actually wants to cuddle after sex). Yet every time we see her at or near the hospital she is on break, chatting with her co-workers, or, roaming the hall drinking a coffee with her BFF and leisurely talking about her relationship troubles.

There are other balloons the film floats to explain why the characters…okay, why Emma, thinks hooking up is better than finding love. They are all rather half-hearted, though. The difference between a situation comedy and romantic comedy is that in the former the comedy is all about the situation, in the latter, it is found in the relationship.

That’s okay, though, in one sense. Hollywood’s job is to tell us that beautiful people are less happy than we are, even if they do mostly hang out with their friends and have sex with other beautiful people. I understand that we are a good forty years past the 1960s, but is casual sex really so accepted that a film can think itself brave for trumpeting the notion that love is more than that? It’s not that I disagree with that premise, it’s that I don’t know who is arguing for the other side. In the film, to the extent it is Emma, she’s a straw-man debater, and nowhere is that clearer than in the painfully long third act where the problem is not that you don’t want to see the characters together but rather that you know they will end up together and so you feel nothing much but irritation at them (her mostly) for not getting on with it already.

That Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman are so full of charm (and easy on the eyes) makes the whole enterprise go down easy. Plus, it’s great to see Kevin Kline again doing anything. There are lots of funny bits, including the world’s most (or least) romantic mix tape. What there isn’t is much romance. That would be okay it it were really about the sex–the allure of sex, or an honest attempt to depict how people use sex to fill their emptiness because the sex can do that sometimes. But here the sex is so much like a chore, even when they are discovering it, so perfunctory, so generic, that we lack a sense of what they get out of it. Granted, a film that was honestly about the sex, one that was truer to its premise, one that really explored why people hook up, would be more like Eyes Wide Shut or some cross between Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen. That is to say, it wouldn’t be opening on multiple screens down at the multiplex.

I laughed a lot, though, so I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who wanted to go see it. Kutcher’s got some serious cleft action going, and when he does his sad-sack, mopey routine, you just want to give him a hug. Sucks to be young, rich, handsome, and having sex with Natalie Portman, I guess.


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