Having recently endured starvation and battered toes in the service of her art, Natalie Portman now encounters another of the ordeals laid out for ambitious young actresses who want to be movie stars. After gracing last month’s Golden Globes broadcast in a rose-bedecked gown and collecting an award for her work in Black Swan, Portman pops up on the big screen in a pre-Valentine’s Day romantic comedy with an instantly forgettable title.
Let me check my notes. The name of this one is No Strings Attached, and it also stars Ashton Kutcher, a perfectly nice-looking fellow and an old hand at this kind of thing. His character, a television writer named Adam, is described as “sooo tall” and “almost annoyingly happy,” which pretty much captures Kutcher’s salient traits.
Portman, playing Emma, a Los Angeles doctor who works emergency room rotations, is quite a bit smaller and more emotionally complicated. What are these two doing together? A possible solution to the mystery emerges if you recall a particular scene involving Mila Kunis in Black Swan. Portman can now claim what appears to be a unique distinction: She may be the only Golden Globe-winning actress to simulate sex on screen with two former members of the cast of That ’70s Show.
While the full import of that astonishing fact sinks in, let me say that No Strings Attached, directed by Ivan Reitman from a script by Elizabeth Meriwether, is not entirely terrible. That is high praise indeed, given that this is a film aspiring to match the achievement of 27 Dresses, When in Rome and Leap Year.
Actually, it is rougher and randier than those movies, with a lot of naughty talk and a dose of semi-cynical sexual candor. The first scenes flail in the direction of various coarse comic subgenres, as we see an icky, awkward summer camp encounter, followed by a frat-house blowout in which we catch sight of Greta Gerwig drunk and wearing shorts with the word “whore” emblazoned across the back. Then there is a funeral, some family awkwardness and a drunken evening that leads to morning-after sex in the wake of a one-night stand that did not happen. It’s not really as confusing as it all sounds, but it is hard to escape the feeling that Reitman shot six or seven movies and then went into the editing room blindfolded to splice them all together.
Natalie Portman (Emma), Ashton Kutcher (Adam), Cary Elwes (Dr Metzner), Kevin Kline (Alvin), Greta Gerwig (Patrice), Lake Bell (Lucy), Olivia Thirlby (Katie), Chris Bridges aka Ludacris (Wallace), Jake Johnson (Eli), Mindy Kaling (Shira), Ophelia Lovibond (Vanessa)
The one that predominates is basically Love & Other Drugs without the disease. Like Anne Hathaway’s character in that movie, Portman’s is the one who insists on keeping things casual, physical and commitment-free. The arrangement that Adam and Emma agree upon is that they will have as much sex as they want — and Reitman’s way with montage suggests that it’s a lot — without the emotional entanglements that everyone watching knows are inevitable and that they both want. Emma’s resistance seems particularly unmotivated. She obviously likes Adam but refuses to fall for him, as if adhering to a deeply held conviction or trying to win a bet.
The pleasures of No Strings Attached are to be found in the brisk, easy humor of some of Meriwether’s dialogue and in the talented people scattered around Portman and Kutcher like fresh herbs strewn on a serving of overcooked fish. Kevin Kline, who played a goatish older literary gent in Definitely, Maybe, does something similarly mischievous and amusing as Adam’s father, a louche former sitcom star who takes up with his son’s ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond).