Reading early reviews of No Strings Attached, it's hard to decipher what people want out of a romantic comedy. Some say that it's hard to believe the bond between Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) is love (true or otherwise). Others have compared it unfavorably to veteran director Ivan Reitman's best comedies (or even his middling ones from the last 15 years). Others have targeted the raunchy sense of humor that garnered the film a solid, if not outright hard-edged R-rating.
On one hand, the "it isn't meant to be Oscar-material" excuse is a dangerous concept that viewers leap to apply to everything from Bride Wars to The Ugly Truth. However, there isn't much road to be traveled from Meet Cute to Happily Ever After that isn't well-walked without straying into weird or obscure territories, and who wants that in light-hearted Friday night fare? As long as the central conflict isn't predicated on a painful lack of obvious communication, nonsensical or stupid, or demeaning to either sex -- unlike the exaggerated, moronic harpies of Wars or Gerard Butler's cartoonish, stereotype-heavy "shock"-jock from Truth -- then it's fine by me. No Strings Attached is not quite the "best friends become lovers" plot the ads are pitching it as, but the idea of emotions-off booty calling is reasonable enough.
Next, add the comedy. As a director, I'm afraid to say he doesn't have much personality, even in his best work, but his eye for casting works wonders. Portman, recently seen giving 110% in Black Swan, gives an equally all-in effort here. Although her co-star Ashton Kutcher can be hit-or-miss, he delivers an even enough turn that Portman's charismatic performance easily picks up the slack for both of them, even helping to summon more of the actor's charm than smarm. Most importantly, she sells Emma's reluctance towards emotional engagement, and it's clear why Adam can't resist. Both are aided by excellent supporting turns (Greta Gerwig on Portman's end, Ludacris and Jake M. Johnson on Kutcher's), while the whole effort is topped off with Liz Meriwether's rapid-fire script. In particular, the comic observations seemed to go over like gangbusters with the women in the audience; nice to see the supposedly female-friendly romantic comedy attempt to relate rather than embarrass (looking at you, Katherine Heigl).
Bringing up the rear is the romance, which must find a way into the movie at an inopportune moment. As far as contrivances designed to keep the leads apart go, No Strings Attached goes to great lengths to keep the decisions character-based and logical, and avoids any major setpieces or unfortunate misunderstandings. It's not perfect -- Adam is saddled with a desperate grab at "you had me at hello" fame and fortune that falls flat on its face -- but hey, I bought it. As for naysayers who complain that there's little evidence these characters are meant to be, well, the pair have chemistry, and in a movie like this, that goes a long way.
It seems simple. No Strings Attached is fairly funny, fairly sweet, and fairly well-done on all fronts. Does every romantic comedy have to be Annie Hall, or even When Harry Met Sally? No Strings Attached is neither of those things, but it's a breezy 110 minutes that avoids the potholes without reinventing the wheel, and neither sex should find themselves squirming in their seats.
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