There’s a sweet romance developing in No Strings Attached that’s infused with equal parts hope, humor, and hesitation. Both the characters and the actors bringing them to life are funny and capable of expressing their desires and doubts with brief exchanges and glances that feel honest and heartfelt. But unfortunately for the movie (and the viewers) the romance in question is not the one featuring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. Instead it’s a couple of supporting characters who manage to do in fifteen collective minutes of screen-time what the leads fail to accomplish throughout the entire film.

Adam and Emma (kids here, but soon to be played by Kutcher and Portman) first meet at summer camp where he tries to turn sympathy over his parent’s impending divorce into a sexual opportunity, but she finds his emotional needs even less appealing than his offer of a good old fashioned fingering. They meet in passing a couple more times over the years, but their story proper begins when Adam awakens naked one morning on a couch belonging to Emma and her three roommates. He’s an emotional mess after discovering his ex-girlfriend is now dating his father (Kevin Kline) and she’s an overworked doctor uninterested in relationships, so the duo decide the best course of action is a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement.

And the downside is…?

This being (ostensibly anyway) a romantic comedy the good times and harmless fornicatin’ can’t last forever as sooner or later one of the two participants is going to want more than just a bump buddy. In the first (of one) stunning subversion of the genre the half that blinks is the guy instead of the girl. Crazy! Adam’s feelings for Emma begin to grow and reveal themselves in kind gestures, sweet comments, and small jealousies, and she responds to it all with an ice front of barely explained crazy. She doesn’t need or want emotional companionship, she’s just not built that way, but if there’s one message the film wants to get across it’s that people who are okay being alone are fucking nuts. Her family, which includes a mother rebounding quickly from the death of her husband and a sister (Olivia Thirlby) marrying the man she really really loves, constantly worry about her being alone. Her friends do the same, and hell, even the Glee-like show Adam works for highlights the idea that people are only happy when they’re with someone else.

Will she see the error of her ways before it’s too late and she loses Adam forever to his sweet and much more deserving co-worker Lucy (Lake Bell)? Does a black swan shit in the woods?

Kutcher is well versed in the ways of the rom-com and his dopey smile carries him as far as can be expected here, but Portman is relatively new to the genre. Garden State is her sole experience as the sexier half of a romantic comedy couple (although the perverts among us you could make a case for Beautiful Girls), so it’s at times a refreshing delight to see Portman giggling, talking dirty, and enjoying herself. Sadly, the material and the character refuse to allow her to remain endearing for very long. Think Summer from 500 Days Of Summer minus the quirk, the shtick, and the honest ending, and you’ll have a good handle on her character. Her stiffness paired with Kutcher’s Kutcherness and a script that tries too hard for so little make for an uneventful and uninteresting rom-com couple.

The supporting cast fares both better and worse. Kline gets a few laughs as a successful actor hanging onto his youth in part by dating younger women, and it serves as a reminder that he should be on the big screen far more than he is. Cary Elwes gets fourth billing, inexplicably, but utters barely a few sentences from behind a witness protection style beard and haircut. Bell’s Lucy is forced to be excessively odd and geeky to ensure the audience chooses Emma instead. Thirlby is wasted (as usual) in the role of “happy sister getting married” while Ludacris, Mindy Kaling, Jake Johnson, and Greta Gerwig exist mostly to provide punchlines as the eclectic and observational friends. The final two do manage to stand out from the group in part though thanks to some of the film’s best quips and a developing romance of their own. Gerwig in particular gets the joy of life and new love across incredibly well with her limited screen-time and dialogue, and it’s enough to make you excited for her role in the upcoming remake of Arthur (even if she’s guaranteed to lose out to Jennifer Garner).

Director Ivan Reitman has enough classics on his resume that he could have retired almost two decades ago and still have been considered a comedy legend, but he chose to stick around instead and keep making movies. The result is a laundry list of cinematic misfires over the past fifteen years including My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Father’s Day, Six Days Seven Nights, Evolution, and more. The films feature some truly talented actors, but somehow Reitman’s waning years have given him the ability to suck the fun out of otherwise entertaining performers. If nothing else, Reitman has clearly proven yet again that he is not the right man to helm (the never going to happen) Ghostbusters 3.

No Strings Attached wants to have its cake and eat kitty too, but the line between fun romance and raunch is a tough one to walk. The most recent film to get it right was Going the Distance, but for an example of one that people actually saw you’d have to go back to 1998’s There’s Something About Mary. Both of those feature big laughs combined with a romance that you want to see succeed, but this latest film features neither. It’s worth a watch for Gerwig and a few random funny bits, but unless the eventual DVD/Bluray release features loads of additional content that viewing can wait until cable.

The Upside: Natalie Portman stars; Greta Gerwig should be a star

The Downside: Central romance is unromantic; laughs are few and far between and usually don’t involve the two leads; film feels three hours long; several supporting characters have very little to do

Grade: C-


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