No Strings Attached: The Taming of the Commitment-Phobic Nympho 

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No Strings Attached
Directed by Ivan Reitman

The romantic comedy demands that two beautiful people, who obviously relish each other's company, take an entire feature film to come together as a couple. It helps if there's a legitimate reason why this would be so. He or she is already spoken for by someone else, say. Or perhaps she and he used to be married to one another, but were often at each other's throats. Maybe he finds out that she's a grifter who had set out to seduce him and chisel away at his family's brewing fortune. Et cetera, et cetera. But No Strings Attached joins a recent, worrying trend in the romantic comedy, in which the only obstacle standing between a woman and happiness is her own colossal self-involvement.

Like November's Love and Other Drugs, No Strings Attached begins with a distractingly off mid-to-late-90s music cue, playing Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up" to signify "15 years ago." (Why not "I'll Make Love to You"? "This Is How We Do It"?) After this first meeting, at summer camp, and again in college in 2006 (two great microcosms explored rather hurriedly), rather distant acquaintances Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) meet in modern-day Los Angeles and commence with the titular premise. This means, also like in Love and Other Drugs, boning: frequent and athletic boning (set to, yes, a music montage), with a mutual avowal of emotional detachment made at the woman's insistence. And Emma, like Love and Other Drugs's Maggie, has a commitment phobia, though for fuzzier reasons than early-onset terminal illness.

Screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether traces this relationship aversion to the death of Emma's father—not even a parents' divorce, which is what supposedly blinded (500) Days of Summer's leading lady to the monogamous overtures volleyed in her direction. Because No Strings Attached, unlike (500) Days of Summer or Love and Other Drugs, was written by an actual woman, one is inclined to give this epidemic female "allergy to relationships" at least the benefit of the doubt: Meriwether could be articulating some women's fundamental, long-overdue distrust with an institution which let down so many of their mothers; she could be pushing an unsentimental, sexually voracious girl as far as she can before placating the test audiences in middle-American malls. None of this really passes the smell test, though: Emma, according to the genre's immutable logic and the wisdom of here serenely codependent mother and sister (Talia Balsam and Olivia Thirlby), just needs to meet the right guy and get over herself.

That No Strings Attached was written by a woman (Portman is a also producer) may explain, as well, the scenes of Kutcher cold chillin' with his bros, who elucidate text messages, and encourage him to "man up," "hit that," etc. while tossing the fris or shooting hoops with an almost Babelfish awkwardness. (His friends are played by Jake Johnson and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, to whom the white guys defer on all things related to manhood and getting laid. Emma also has a fat, lisping gay friend, and there's an Asian kid with a cell-phone cam hanging around the set of the Glee-like TV show where Adam is a PA.)

But Meriwether does write an awful lot of material—ultimately too much to fit comfortably in the movie—for usually underutilized female performers. Emma's roommates, who work with her at what seems by the end of the plot machinations to be the only hospital in Los Angeles, include Mindy Kaling, doing her dedicated-follower-of-US Weekly bit, and Greta Gerwig, who seems somehow to be playing the sassy best friend as sadder than Florence in Greenberg. Her low, drawn-out, underwater delivery—like Eeyore replicating Warren Beatty's old trick about letting them see you think of the next line—are dopey and droopy. And Lake Bell, as a coworker of Adam's who briefly moves into Ralph Bellamy territory, talks constantly, narrating her thoughts as they occur to her and self-analyzing her actions of a minute ago. Bell and Gerwig's opposite cadences bring a spirit of vital spontaneity to the movie—a modern, improv-influenced bit of energy for a movie that feels otherwise boxed-in by its director, veteran high-concept comedy helmsman Ivan Reitman, who slathers on wall-to-wall music to coat over abrupt transitions and link together a too-large supporting cast flailing to connect. (There's Cary Elwes, as renowned doctor at Emma's hospital! There's Abby Elliott, doing impersonations!)

Only Kevin Kline, as Kutcher's caddish washed-up TV star dad, has a classical flourish to make the most of Reitman's stagy set-ups; Kutcher is mostly low-key affable and drippy-romantic, as unthreateningly sweet-when-you-get-to-know-him as the similarly fratty Josh Duhamel in When in Rome—another movie about a young woman who finally learns to love a man as much as she loves her awesome, demanding job—and softening to compensate for Portman's hard edges, so that he looks like a dormat and she looks like a shrew. Portman, with her overachiever poise (her character went to MIT instead of Harvard), does her best at being a comedienne and a wild-card, but her impulsive party disruptions, neurotic crying jags and drunk misbehavior feels studied—her goofy-sultry lip bites just look like grimaces. She cannot dance Zee Black Swan—or maybe the movie doesn't really want her to.

Opens January 21

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