by Tim Ross
Boy meets girl, then meets her again. And again. Then they start a purely physical relationship by mutual assent. That’s the premise of “No Strings Attached,” starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. It’s not your usual formula for a romantic comedy, but everything that happens after they start their booty call experiment is pure formula – and it works.
This is one of the more intelligent and witty romantic comedies to come along in some time, thanks mostly to Portman but with a credible performance by Kutcher. “No Strings Attached” has the same parade of support characters you will find in all such films: the quirky roommates, meddling parents, other potential suitors and lots of clichés. There is even a scene where Portman munches on a huge box of donuts as comfort food while under romantic duress – a scene you can count on in every film of this genre.
The difference with “No Strings Attached” is the film is witty and sharp, with the steady hand of director Ivan Reitman at the helm and strong performances from the leads. Reitman is fresh off producing the six-time Oscar-nominated “Up in the Air,” which his son Jason directed, and is the director who brought us broad comedies like “Ghostbusters” and the smartly funny “Legal Eagles.”
We meet our two lovers at summer camp. Emma (Portman) and Adam (Kutcher) are in their teens and are in a deep conversation while everyone around them makes out. Adam is introduced as a nice, thoughtful guy with the usual curiosity for girls and sex and Emma as emotionally bereft with a firm eye on her future.
Reitman then deploys a nice device of having them run across each other over time in a series of short vignettes until we are in the present with Emma and Adam as young adults. Adam is bereft because his longtime girlfriend has broken up with him. If that weren’t bad enough, he finds out that she is now dating his father Alvin, an aging former television star, played with flair by Kevin Kline.
Adam sets out to have meaningless flings and runs into Emma at just the right time. Emma is an ambitious resident physician, fresh out of medschool with neither the time nor inclination for a boyfriend. What she does seek is a reliable playmate who will answer her booty calls night and day.
The two set out to see if a guy and girl can be friends with benefits and nothing more. The film becomes entirely predictable at this point, but that’s beside the point. The journey toward love is what matters in a romantic comedy, and this journey is full of belly laughs, smiles and the occasional groan.
Portman is pitch perfect as a cold, calculating professional whose heart undergoes a slow thaw and Kutcher is nicely cast in a role that doesn’t challenge him to do more than he comfortably can. The rest of the ensemble deserves mention as well, with fun performances by Lake Bell, Mindy Kaling, Cary Elwes and Ludacris. They’re all stock characters, but kudos to writers Elizabeth Meriwether and Michael Samonek for giving each of them some depth and interesting personality quirks.
The story flows without feeling rushed or overly long, and the end, while predictable as stated before, is satisfying. Reitman even does what few other romantic comedies do: He ties up loose ends on every single major character, and he does so in sometimes surprising, always humorous, ways. He pays attention to every detail, yet another reason that “No Strings Attached” rises above other films in this genre. Scenes rarely end without great tag lines, and jokes are treated with multiple punch lines, always to good effect.
Guys often groan and sigh when it’s time to pay their partner back for endless football games by going to a chick flick. Don’t worry, fellas, this is a date movie that you may enjoy just as much as your date.
Grade: 2.5/4 Stars