- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
ull disclosure: I may not be the ideal reviewer for this particular attempt at raunchy yet sentimental romantic comedy. I have an Ashton Kutcher problem, and I don't mean like an addiction. Kind of the opposite. Since time immemorial, Hollywood has occasionally smiled upon semi-randomly selected pretty people and I've long ago accepted that fact. However, there's an intense and inescapable smugness about Kutcher that I can't ignore, and that just makes me want to be anywhere where his image is not.
He is, however, not the thing I liked least about "No Strings Attached," a new comedy conceived to capitalize on this terribly new and hip phenomenon of "friends with benefits" or "fuck buddies." Kutcher lets his eyelashes do most of his acting for him, but he tamps down the obnoxiousness and is not so much offensive as merely the least talented member of an otherwise extraordinary cast. Veteran comedy producer and director Ivan Reitman is the problem. No, I take that back. Reitman's apparent belief that the calculated yet sloppy screenplay credited to Elizabeth Meriwether was worthy of our time is the problem.
Kutcher stars as Adam, the son of an 80s sitcom star (Kevin Kline) with a penchant for party drugs, trying to make his own mark in show business while working as a production assistant on a Disney-ish teen musical television series. When he's not working, he's hanging out in Culver City with his best friend (Jake Johnson) and their mutual pal/bartender (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and, naturally, talking mostly about sex.
He gets plenty to talk about when his dad hooks up with his ridiculously spoiled and idiotic ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond). A drunken episode ensues and he first wakes up naked in the apartment of long time acquaintance Emma (Natalie Portman) and then has quirky-but-sober sex with her. It seems that Adam, who we know has "a good heart" because people keep telling us he does, likes her a great deal. Emma, however, is a medical resident at UCLA Medical Center – excuse, me "Westwood Teaching Hospital" – with little time for anything, least of all love. She insists that, if their relationship is to continue, it won't be a relationship at all because she's simply not wired for true romance. If you don't know what happens next, you are probably Amish. Now, get away from the computer.
Some years before that point, Emma invites Adam to be her date at an unnamed event she doesn't want to go to, and he turns up at a relative's funeral dressed in wildly inappropriate fashion. It's that kind of a movie, so worried about boring us to death and lacking in any confidence or belief in its own premises that it bores us to death.
"No Strings Attached" can be slightly funny. An important figure in the history of North American comedy, Reitman is probably a much better producer than director. He is, generally, about as good as his screenplays, which means he is in terrible creative trouble here. However, you can see him and his large and talented cast coming up with interesting comic ideas to try and save the film. I chuckled softly probably about every seven or eight minutes, but I groaned in pain – my apologies to the nice folks sitting next to me – at an obvious and unfunny joke or a plot point just as often. I spent the rest of the time spotting the very familiar West L.A. locations.
As you will expect and possibly demand, there is raunch aplenty here. It seems clear that what's going on here is an attempt to create a more female-friendly variation on a Judd Apatow hang-out flick. The emphasis on friendship – people sharing the same space, anyway – is a big clue, and this time Emma's medical buddies, played by mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig ("Greenberg") and Mindy Kaling of "The Office," eclipse the bromance with jokes about menstruation and horny loneliness. (Guy Branum plays another friend, the obligatory funny gay man.)
It feels forced, probably because the film's two main characters are ciphers whose actions make no sense. Natalie Portman is, obviously, a vastly better actor than Kutcher, and a likely Oscar winner this year, but she’s not a miracle worker. Her efforts to construct a character out of a series of random acts and moods are slightly painful to watch. Kutcher spends the film trying to do as little as possible, which is a good strategy for him.
I do not like this movie, but it won't surprise me if "No Stings Attached" makes money. There was a significant minority of people at the screening I saw it with who were laughing quite a lot. Also, just prior to the show, I chatted briefly with a young woman who seemed plenty smart and actually liked the idea of a movie starring Ashton Kutcher. Fans of Kutcher really do exist and what "No Strings Attached" offers might be enough for youngish women and their dutiful male friends, with or without benefits.
It's not enough for me. In the final act, Lake Bell appears and threatens to take over the film as a beautiful but socially inept ultra-nerd coworker of Kutcher’s character and a very unlikely romantic rival for Portman. She's a sweet creation and I, at least, became sorry I wasn't watching a movie about her. I was even sorrier I was watching this one.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Paramount could have easily slacked off on the Blu-ray release of “No Strings Attached” and no one would have noticed, so kudos to them for putting together a decent collection of bonus material. Granted, the audio commentary with director Ivan Reitman isn’t particularly exciting, but at least it’s there, along with a making-of featurette (“Sex Friends: Getting Together”) and a few deleted scenes, including an alternate storyline involving Ashton Kutcher and Lake Bell’s characters' quasi-relationship. Rounding out the set is a behind-the-scenes look at the show-within-the-film (“Inside the Sassy Halls of Secret High”), a brief featurette on the generational evolution of dating (“Modern Love: The Dos and Donts”), and a DVD and digital copy of the film.