Directed By: Ivan Reitman
Screenplay By: Elizabeth Meriwether
Story By: Mike Samonek, Elizabeth Meriwether
Produced By: Jeffrey Clifford, Joe Medjuck, Ivan Reitman
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Natalie Portman, Jake Johnson, Greta Gerwig, Kevin Kline, Lake Bell
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 110 minutes
Release Date: January 21, 2011
Review Date: January 22, 2011
It may be hard to believe, given the terrible trailer, but I was looking forward to No Strings Attached. Part of the reason goes to needing a feel-good antidote to the harsh gutting the romantic comedy genre took at the hands of Blue Valentine, but there were other factors at play that made me think that the film would be better than the uninspired marketing indicated: Ashton Kutcher has slowly been growing on me with winning performances in bad movies (hello Killers), Ivan Reitman is a solid comedic director who should be able to take a film with this creaky a premise and turn it into something watchable, and a supporting cast of comic ringers and promising up-and-comers. I wouldn’t say my optimism was sorely misplaced, but the end result was less than inspired.
In two prologues, we see Adam (Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) meet. First as middle-schoolers (played as youngsters by Dylan Hayes and Stefanie Scott) at summer camp and then ten years later at a frat party. In the first meeting, Adam is depressed because his parents are getting divorced. This awkward confession makes Emma extremely uncomfortable, as she explains that she’s not good at comforting people. Still, she gives him a hesitant pat on the back that apparently makes an impression on Adam. In the second meeting, Adam quickly takes an invitation from Emma to accompany her to “this thing.” The “thing” turns out to be her father’s funeral. Emma quietly serves as the rock for her mother (Talia Balsam) and little sister (Olivia Thirlby, wasted in a thankless role). Confused and embarrassed, Adam still is able to make an impression on Emma as a goodhearted guy, even if she has convinced herself that people shouldn’t be in relationships because they will eventually get hurt.
I tend to get impatient with a movie that has more than one prologue. It seems like a lazy form of storytelling, as though the audience is unable to understand anything about a character unless shown every meaningful moment of their lives leading up to the main story. While I was willing to give the film two prologues, I was flat-out annoyed when a third prologue was shoehorned in with Adam and Emma having a chance meeting in Los Angeles where they’ve both relocated. They exchange numbers as friends, but the moment is made awkward by the presence of Adam’s girlfriend Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond).
Finally, after three false starts and nearly fifteen minutes, the film proper begins.
In the present-day, Adam is a wannabe TV writer who has settled for being a production assistant on a cheesy Glee-like teen musical. His father (a game Kevin Kline) is a former sitcom star who offers to use his connections to help him out, but Adam wants to build his career on his own. Despite the slight tension between them, Adam seems to get along with his father until the bombshell is dropped: Vanessa, who broke up with Adam several months earlier, is now his father’s girlfriend. Angry, Adam goes on a bender, making numerous drunken phone calls to any girl in his phone. The next morning, hung over and naked with no memory of what happened, he wakes up on a couch in an unfamiliar apartment.
It turns out that the couch and apartment belong to Emma. She was one of the drunk calls Adam made and she let him pass out on the couch after making a fool of himself. The two are obviously attracted to each other and they quickly fall into bed. Using her hectic job as a doctor as an excuse to avoid emotional tangle ups, she makes the pitch to Adam that they be friends who sleep together when it’s convenient for her. He readily agrees, despite wanting more from her. Of course, it isn’t long before their feelings start to get in the way and their simple arrangement becomes extremely complicated.
If this seems like a surplus of plot for a romantic comedy, that’s because it is. My synopsis doesn’t even include subplots about Adam’s attempts to sell a script, sidekicks Eli (Jake Johnson) and Patrice (Greta Gerwig) embarking on their own romance, or the requisite potential monkey wrenches (Lake Bell and Ben Lawson) to Adam and Emma finally finding love together.
Maybe that’s why the script by Elizabeth Meriwether feels so underdeveloped — she’s trying to keep too many balls in the air. It also doesn’t help that Reitman’s direction is so flat. He does a commendable job of trying to keep a silly premise grounded in a semblance of reality by not letting the film become a series of one-liners. But the trade off is that when there is a laugh line, it feels forced and awkward, as though the characters are constantly half a beat behind the audience.
Even though I have problems with the script and direction, the cast nearly make the film worth watching. Kutcher quietly continues his solid work as a likable comedic leading man. Portman draws on her years of “manic pixie dream girl” (Google it) roles and skillfully avoids those clichéd pitfalls to keep Emma from seeming like a complete idiot even as she does several stupid things. Gerwig, Johnson, Mindy Kaling, and Kline provide the most consistent laughs in underwritten roles, showing themselves to be true pros. And then there are bizarre casting choices that don’t really add anything to the film beyond a sense of “hey look, it’s — “: Cary Elwes, Ludacris (excuse me, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), and Tim Matheson.
In many ways, it feels as though having such a loaded cast put the film on cruise control. You can almost hear Reitman deciding that a fully developed script isn’t needed when you can throw one ringer after another on screen.
In the end, that’s what makes No Strings Attached disappointing. A cast this good deserves better material. Here, they take a tired genre and a weak script and make it watchable. Imagine what they could have done with something worthy of their combined talents.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.