Review: Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher anchor the charming ‘No Strings Attached’

I’ve taken significant heat over the years for reviews I’ve written about romantic comedies from people who assume that I dismiss the genre as a whole.  You should see some of the angry letters I’ve gotten from people I can only assume were shaking with rage as they tried to mount a coherent defense of garbage like “How To Lose A Man In 10 Days.”  I’ve been called a misogynist by people who were defending material that was so blatant in its hatred of women that I felt drunk when I read their comments.  The simple truth is that I hold these films up to the same standards of coherence that I would hold any film, and many of these movies simply fail that test.

As with any genre, there are certain devices and plot elements and story shapes that people lean on too much, and that grinding sameness is what wears me down with many of these films.  Someone lies to someone else, then has to go through preposterous acrobatics to keep that lie alive.  Someone runs through an airport to stop someone from leaving with a declaration of love.  There’s always some reason a couple is driven apart in act three, only to reunite at the last romantic second.  And it all… just… wears… me… down.

Ivan Reitman’s “No Strings Attached” could also, and perhaps more accurately, be called Liz Meriwether’s “No Strings Attached,” because unlike many of these films that are obviously written by a hateful piece of artificial intelligence, there is a voice to this film.  And while the film certainly plays by many of the established and exhausted rules of the genre, there is enough of a voice to it that I find myself willing to forgive those conventions.  “No Strings Attached” is not a great film, but it’s painless and even, thanks to the largely likable cast, occasionally pretty good.  And in this genre, that’s enough of an edge to stand out.

Meriwether, a well-liked NY playwright, brings a sunny acidity to the material, and from the opening scene, there’s a frankness to language and sexual attitudes that marks this as the work of someone younger, someone who doesn’t see anything wrong with the way these characters live.  There’s casual drug use, blunt language, and a determined rejection of the typically codified version of romance that is interesting and that sometimes even feels a little shocking.  I’ve worked for studios as a writer, and I can tell you that one of the notes you will get, absolutely positively guaranteed, if you include characters casually smoking pot or ingesting anything else, is that the drug use has to go.  HAS TO.  It’s a ratings issue, but beyond that, it’s one of the things that automatically sets off alarms for a studio.  They just hate it.  Here, all of the in-your-face qualities reflect a fairly realistic take on the way people in their 20s live and relax these days, and that’s where you can hear Meriwether’s voice loud and clear.  She gives her entire supporting cast odd digressions and throwaway lines that make them feel like real people, and it helps that people like Mindy Kaling and Greta Gerwig and Jake Johnson and Lake Bell and Olivia Thirlby are the ones playing the characters.  They’re all gifted comic performers, and they flesh out the world around Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) in a believable way.

As far as Adam and Emma are concerned, the film seems to avoid many of the narrative pitfalls it could easily fall into.  Basically, they met when they were young, and then years later, run into each other again.  There’s a real attraction between them, but Emma is a no-relationships kind of girl, protective to the point of being a little freaky about it, and Adam is just coming out of a relationship when they meet.  He’s a romantic guy at heart, but when he realizes his ex-girlfriend is now dating his uber-famous TV star father Alvin (Kevin Kline, as willfully broad and funny as always), he gives up on romance.  They both enter into an arrangement looking for the opposite of love and romance, agreeing to just have sex and remain friends, with no fights, no drama, and nobody falling in love. For the most part, the film simply examines the way feelings settle in for the two, complicating this thing they thought they built.  Neither one of them does anything particularly terrible to the other, which is nice to see in a film about people who supposedly dig each other.  They’re just wired differently.  Adam falls in love way before Emma does, and the  more he pushes her to treat him like a boyfriend, the further she retreats.

Again… you’re not going to be startled by any redefinition of the entire notion of a romantic comedy here.  It’s ultimately a pretty simple, direct little movie.  Kutcher seems more engaged and engaging than he has in most of his films, and part of that seems to be a matter of chemistry, him reacting to Natalie Portman.  I get it.  This is the first time we’ve seen that girl from the Lonely Island rap video in a feature film, the first time she’s brought that same foul-mouthed, cheerfully dirty sense of humor out to play for a film.  It makes her doubly adorable, and it feels like in her last few films, we’re starting to really see what the adult Portman is capable of.  She lets her Black Swan fly here, and her sense of giddy joy at what she’s doing carries over into the tone of the film itself.  She’s having a good time, Kutcher’s having a good time, and even Ivan Reitman, whose work has been genuinely awful for his last several films, seems to be having a good time.  As a result, I did, too, and that simple surprise is enough to make me recommend this one.

“No Strings Attached” opens everywhere this Friday.