No Strings Attached - movie review
Who's saying what
If No Strings Attached's valiant yet ultimately weak effort is any evidence, the answer is "not quite".
We meet Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) in a series of prologues - 15 years ago, 5 years ago, 1 year ago - that lay the groundwork for their friendship.
They meet at summer camp, where a young Adam (Dylan Hayes) asks young Emma (Stefanie Scott), "Can I finger you?"
It's a ribald start to a film that quickly becomes more formulaic than you expect, though in a not-entirely-unenjoyable way.
Emma is a doctor and has no time for the emotional entanglements of being boyfriend and girlfriend; Adam, who works on a High School Musical-style teen show, just wants a sympathy root since he found out his dad Alvin (Kevin Kline), a childish soap star, is schtupping his ex-girlfriend.
After he ends up at Emma's house in a drunken haze - "Did I wave my dick at you?" he asks, remorseful; she replies, charmingly, "It looked kinda... carefree" - they have a quickie, which in turn leads to another, and soon enough they are bonking on a regular basis.
That Adam - a hugely likable guy - falls for Emma comprehensively is not much of a surprise, though the film does take its time getting to its inevitable romantic comedy conclusion, even teetering on the precipice of non-traditional narrative.
Certainly, No Strings Attached is unusual within the current market in that it gives a female slant on the usual sex comedy fare, something that the failure of 2002's The Sweetest Thing seemed guaranteed to prevent from ever occurring again.
But since the film is told mostly from Adam's perspective, Emma's decision to live her life free of the tiresome constraints of traditional relationship roles has an unshakable hollowness to it.
Rather than a statement of modern female independence, Emma's choice feels instead like a male fantasy - the hot chick who just wants to bone you - dressed up with a vague patina of "feelings".
For the most part, this faintly sinister post-feminist angle is kept hidden by pacey dialogue and a largely impressive cast of supporting characters (particularly the criminally underused Greta Gerwig, so wonderful in Greenberg, as Emma's hangdog housemate Patrice).
Indeed, there are many times when the dialogue is perfectly snappy and wonderfully droll - particularly in the hands of the supporting cast, like the magnificently deadpan Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as Adam's bartender friend Wallace, and The Office's Mindy Kaling as Emma's roommate Shira. Lake Bell is a hoot as Adam's highly-strung workmate Lucy.
But Meriwether's dialogue, while punchy, suffers from a slackness of direction (and editing) that leaves the one-liners buffeted by too much dead air.
The beauty of catch-phrase-filled romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally, Tootsie, or even Knocked Up is that the gags are fired at such a rate you don't have time to catch your breath.
In No Strings Attached, you laugh, and then realise you've laughed, and look around the cinema self-consciously.
Many of the film's best moments are throwaway: an inexplicable alt.country cover of Jay-Z's swearathon 99 Problems, or Emma sobbing her way through a bulk order of donut holes.
Elsewhere, the film is a strange mix of bawdy and conservative. Every man and his dog know what people who enter into a "no strings attached" relationship are called, and it sure isn't "sex friends".
"We're sex friends," Adam tells his neighbour, after seeing Emma off following a late-night tryst.
The phrase pops up again a number of times and clangs with every appearance. It's oddly coy given the film's subject matter, and especially strange considering No Strings Attached is the script that rose from the ashes of screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether's 2008 Black List-favourite, Fuckbuddies.
(The sex scenes, or curious lack thereof, are also tame; the recent Gyllenhaall/Hathaway vehicle Love & Other Drugs was far franker and felt more honest for it.)
The film works because Kutcher is so doggedly likable - particularly his refusal to send the material up; his Adam is 100% sincere where other actors might have hinted at a barely-hidden irony - and Portman is so clearly enjoying the career renaissance that allows her to be more than an Esquire-reading dude's romantic construct.
There's a sunniness - both literal and emotional - to No Strings Attached that breezes you through its lesser moments (and they are plentiful) to get to the good bits, which is testament to Ivan Reitman's dab hand as director - but you end up wondering if, in younger hands (say, his son Jason's), the film might have become something greater.
In its own odd, offhand way, though, No Strings Attached is quietly revolutionary - it's just that none of the revolutions happen in the foreground.
From Emma's ragtag group of housemates to older characters with active (in Alvin's case, too active) sex lives, there's another, far more interesting film bubbling just underneath the surface.
Through the whole film I kept thinking back to the frat-house prologue, where - aside from the hard-bodied Portman - women with natural looking bodies of various shapes and sizes gyrated unselfconsciously.
For me, it was a split-second moment that hinted at what No Strings Attached could have become - a more naturalistic meditation on modern relationships? A sex comedy with substance? A feminist fuckbuddy fantasy??
Instead, it ends up being just another one-night stand - perfectly enjoyable, but mostly forgettable, and maybe even a bit regrettable.
No Strings Attached opens in cinemas on Thursday, February 10.
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