Movie Review: No Strings AttachedMovie Review Thursday, February 3rd, 2011
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by Elizabeth Meriwether
Starring Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, and Kevin Kline
At every multiplex
Movie studios like to drop bombs in January. Usually these are movies that the studios are contractually bound to release but which they would rather do so quietly, so that not too many people are embarrassed. A few weeks ago, we got the spectacularly bad – even for Nicholas Cage – Season of the Witch. January has seen the likes of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a stinker that still made a mint, as well as certified disasters like Elektra, One Missed Call, and The Butterfly Effect, one of the many Ashton Kutcher duds. When I noticed the release date and the mostly clichéd marketing for Kutcher’s latest film, No Strings Attached, I worried out loud. The film is a romantic comedy about “friends with benefits,” with Natalie Portman starring as the friend. “Oh, Natalie. This is going to be your Norbit.”
Norbit, one of the many black-comedian-in-a-fat-suit movies and probably the worst, was released in February, 2007, but it might as well have been January. A few weeks after release, it was largely credited with ruining Eddie Murphy’s chances of winning a most deserved Oscar for Dreamgirls. Portman is a favorite to win an Oscar this year for Black Swan, and a bad, crass comedy released while Hollywood is voting could do her in. But as I watched No Strings Attached, Iwas pleasantly surprised. It is a sweet and often extremely funny movie, and if anything, it should improve Portman’s chances of winning an Oscar. She can be equally convincing as a delicate, disturbed ballerina and as a sarcastic, horny medical resident.
No Strings Attached follows the romantic comedy formula, and if you’ve seen more than one, a description of that formula shouldn’t count as a spoiler. Yes: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. The gimmick in this film is that Adam (Kutcher) and Emma (Portman) start out as friends with benefits (or sex friends, or f—k buddies). Adam doesn’t want it that way. Emma, who is not only a hyper-busy doctor-in-training, is also terrified of anything resembling a relationship and is adamant about avoiding romance. As usual, one half of the couple has a wacky job easily mined for laughs: Adam a production assistant on a show meant to be a stand-in for Glee. Emma, meanwhile, is a resident at a hospital in Los Angeles that serves as a good set piece for medically themed plot twists. Also, per formula, both Adam and Emma have funny, under-developed friends to bounce jokes off of; Kutcher’s circle includes Jake Johnson and Ludacris, while Portman’s includes her fellow doctors played by Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, and Guy Branum, the film’s token homosexual. There are subplots about Adam’s and Emma’s parents. Kevin Kline plays Adam’s father, a narcissistic former sitcom star sleeping with Adam’s spectacularly shallow ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond).
The film works for two reasons. First, the screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether gave the cast numerous lines that are filthy, silly and often hilarious, while at the same time developing main characters and constructing key scenes that seemed authentic. Adam’s humor is based on the kind of one-liners that make good sitcoms and Emma makes jokes appropriate to a snarky, young doctor. Their repartee is often adorable. And Meriwether’s use of the song “Bleeding Love” is inspired. Second, Natalie Portman isn’t an obvious comedian and this is why she is so good as Emma. We never quite discover why she is so scared of commitment, why she feels the need to be alone, but it’s clear – and she makes it clear through palpable angst – that she doesn’t know either. She’s confused and afraid, and uses her humor and her brain to protect herself. Portman portrays this awkward vulnerability with the kind of skill that, in a better movie, gets nominated for awards.
While I matched the screening audience laugh for laugh through much of the film, the last minute stuck in my craw. In the space of maybe 20 seconds, we see Jake Johnson’s gay dads flounce into a scene and squeal like teen-aged girls, and then Guy Branum is seen leading the only character who could be considered a villain, and now who seems to be a closet case, into a sexual tryst. After watching a broad comedy about modern love in which the humor of the two leads is based on their mostly finely drawn characters, I was insulted by an epilogue that used lame stereotypes to make jokes about homosexuality. That’s a cliché that definitely bombed.
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