A poster for Natalie Portman’s new romantic comedy No Strings Attached asks an important question, “Can sex friends stay best friends?” After sitting through a recent press screening, I believe Paramount Pictures and director Ivan Reitman have also raised a few more questions, chief among them, “When is Ashton Kutcher going back to television?”
Like much of the raunchy humor in the film, the premise of No Strings Attached is simple: Two friends agree to use each other for sex and thereby avoid the messy, emotional pitfalls of having an adult relationship.
And lest the audience thinks for even a moment that Kutcher’s aspiring television writer Adam and Portman’s emotionally distant doctor-in-training Emma aren’t destined to fall in love, we’re treated to an opening scene that has their characters meeting for the first time as teens at summer camp.
Gawky, miniaturized versions of the two protagonists carry on an adorably stilted conversation about the impending divorce of Adam’s parents, ending with young Adam earnestly asking Emma if he can “finger” her. Perhaps if delivered by Kutcher, and not an actor cast solely for the genetic good fortune of being his teen-aged doppelganger, this might have been awkwardly funny. Instead, it comes off as painful and borderline offensive — setting the perfect tone for the rest of the film.
Minus a character initiating sex with a pie, all of the raunchy humor cliches are present and accounted for: Jokes about a character’s two gay dads? Check. Jokes about menstruation? Check. Jokes about a character obsessed with taking pictures of his penis? Check again.
The characters in No Strings Attached behave incomprehensibly. Beyond a vague explanation that Emma “wants to be strong,” we’re given no insight as to why she insists on keeping her relationship with Adam strictly sexual. This is in direct contrast to Adam, who has just learned that his ex-girlfriend is dating his father. He has every reason to avoid chasing a woman with the emotional range of a Vulcan, but he insists on chasing her anyway.
There is some good news, however: Reitman has surrounded his two leads with a great comedic cast.
Kevin Kline is both funny and touching as Kutcher’s self-absorbed father, a ridiculous, fading TV star known primarily for uttering the catchphrase “Great Scott!” Mindy Kaling (The Office) and Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) are also good as Portman’s friends, and Lake Bell achieves nearly every laugh in the movie. Those who remember Bell’s performance in It’s Complicated will scarcely recognize her here as Lucy, Kutcher’s endearingly neurotic co-worker, who harbors a not-so-secret crush.
Which brings us back to the trouble with Ashton Kutcher. For better or worse, Kutcher is a TV star. He belongs on television. His sloppy, affable charm is endearing, but it doesn’t really translate to the big screen. Next to actors like Kline and Portman, he seems out of place and out of his depth.
Anyone who’s seen Portman’s digital short on Saturday Night Live knows the actress is genuinely funny. What’s more, she’s a bona fide movie star, which means she likely could further develop her character and have say in why Emma compulsively avoids relationships. Unfortunately, though, the filmmakers apparently weren’t interested in revealing what that motivation might be.
Some have speculated that the movie’s release might hurt Portman’s chances of winning an Oscar for her performance in Black Swan, which would be a shame. No Strings Attached isn’t a good movie, but Portman shouldn’t be held liable — especially since she seems to be having such a good time doing it.
No Strings Attached opens in theaters today.