The benefits of a sexy young cast seem to have modestly recharged director Ivan Reitman’s batteries in “No Strings Attached.” Predicated on the not especially burning question of whether two friends can sustain a commitment-free sexual relationship, this genial if overlong romantic comedy bounces along on a steady stream of amusing moments, even as it presents the most polished and predictable version of a scenario that cries out for greater verbal and visual candor, given its R rating. Still, the central pairing of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher should make the passable January release an easy sell with date-night crowds.
“No Strings Attached” was originally titled “Friends With Benefits,” which was changed to avoid confusion with a forthcoming Justin Timberlake-Mila Kunis comedy bearing the same name and a near-identical premise: Two longtime acquaintances agree to use each other’s bodies for around-the-clock, emotion-free, no-questions-asked gratification. In presenting this arrangement, Elizabeth Meriwether’s screenplay attempts to tap into the social mores of young urbanites in an era of malleable commitment levels and seemingly limitless sexual options, their booty calls facilitated more smoothly than ever by the wonders of text messaging and the Internet.
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Zippy opening sequence establishes the friendship of Emma (Portman) and Adam (Kutcher), skipping ahead a few years at a time from awkward adolescence to attractive adulthood. Both hail from affluent corners of Los Angeles; she’s a driven medical student, while he’s an aspiring writer with a crappy below-the-line gig on a “Glee”-esque TV show. Emma has cultivated a pragmatic, unsentimental view of sex over the years, while Adam has just been dumped by his gold-digging girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond), who’s taken up with Adam’s father, a self-infatuated former tube star (Kevin Kline, appropriately hammy).
Eager to drown his sorrows with meaningless sex, Adam goes on a drunk-dialing bender and awakens the next morning to find himself naked in Emma’s apartment, in the pic’s one remotely bawdy sequence. Emma assures Adam they didn’t sleep together, but their mutual attraction is so natural that they proceed to do just that, again and again. Emma plants herself firmly in the driver’s seat of this purely physical relationship, dictating clear emotional boundaries (no jealousy, no cuddling, no breakfast the morning after), which Adam, an instinctive romantic, has his own goofy ways of circumventing.
Playing characters with a decidedly laid-back view of getting laid, the two leads possess an agreeably mellow chemistry that somewhat neutralizes the fact that they feel so unevenly matched on paper. Whereas Portman is given a character with a specific worldview, Kutcher gets slapped with a set of outlandish daddy-drama complications that detract from the relatability of the film’s key questions: Can sex between friends remain a simple transaction? Can you make love without falling in love?
Romantic-comedy conventions and happy endings necessitate that these questions be answered in the negative. But one could argue that “No Strings Attached” never really poses them in the first place: Adam and Emma look like a pretty cute couple from the get-go, and most of their quickie couplings are shot to look as tidy, artificial and montage-driven as most MPAA-approved sex scenes. Reitman’s comic timing remains crisp enough to get mileage out of the script’s occasionally inspired zingers, but a director with a heightened perception of nuances of body language, and an ability to convey them to the audience, would have given the pic a more provocative core beneath its generic trappings.
As it is, “No Strings Attached” is content to be sweet rather than edgy, to make you go “awww” instead of “hmmm,” and in that respect, it more than fulfills its obligations as a commercial product. It also has a little something extra in Portman, who humorously and movingly charts her character’s gradual awakening to her true feelings; in a refreshing departure from the norm, neither actress nor script suggests that Emma’s independence and desire for intimacy are mutually exclusive values.
Per specifications, Emma and Adam each get a peanut gallery of supportive friends, roommates and co-workers; thesps include Olivia Thirlby, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, a never-more-mainstream Greta Gerwig and a nearly unrecognizable Cary Elwes in a bizarre, third-billed cameo. The standout in this unwieldy and not always well-deployed supporting cast is Lake Bell, whose awkward, twitchy yet sweet-natured performance as Adam’s erstwhile love interest almost makes you want to follow her into a movie of her own.
D.p. Rogier Stoffers’ bright-colored lensing shows an eye for picturesque L.A. landmarks, including Walt Disney Concert Hall and LACMA’s Urban Lights exhibit, highlighting a slick tech package. End-credits wrap-up emphasizes the material’s more sitcom-ish aspects.