Hey, I'm a cheap date. You show me a trailer with Natalie Portman writhing around half-nekkid, and I'll at least give the movie a look on Blu-ray. I had to brace myself for this one, though. No Strings Attached is a romantic comedy, after all, and that's a genre that doesn't always play that nicely with that pesky Y chromosome of mine. There's also the whole thing with Ashton Kutcher being on the bill, and his filmography's not exactly teeming with winners. Turns out, though...? I kinda like it.
You know the story. Boy
meets girl. Boy asks to finger girl. Girl says no. Over the years, Boy and Girl keep bumping into each other and not having sex until...well, they do. So...what's next? Emma (Natalie Portman) isn't exactly in the market for a romantic thing right now. Adam (Ashton Kutcher), meanwhile, just wants as much of her as he can get. So, when Emma shrugs and says they should just be fuckbuddies, Adam nods and goes right along with it. Just sex. No commitment. In any other romantic comedy, you'd get a montage of cutesy, doe-eyed falling-in-love moments; here, there's a barrage of shots of them screwing in empty hospital rooms and stuff. But...c'mon, of course Adam falls for her. Wouldn't be much of a movie otherwise. Will Adam smash down those emotional barriers Kool Aid Man-style and win Emma over? Is it possible for a guy and a girl to unapologetically serial-boink each other and just stay friends?
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Yeah, yeah, you know who's gonna wind up with who by the time the end credits roll, but that's not really the point. No Strings Attached is actually a lot of fun, and a big part of that's the way it pokes at the romantic comedy formula. Instead of two people meeting-cute and trying to figure out if they like each other, Adam and Emma are screwing twentysomething minutes in. Sex first. Relationshippy stuff later. There's also kind of a gender reversal. This time around, Emma -- the female half of the equation -- is the one pulling the reins. She's the one with the daunting, impressive dayjob. She's the aggressor...she sets the tempo for the fuckbuddy-dom. She's the one who keeps her emotions walled off and is just out to have a good time. She's the dude in this whatever-it-is, leaving Adam with the touchy-feely part. Although Natalie Portman is a little too overtly adorable to completely pull off this sort of character, No Strings Attached does a shockingly terrific job getting Ashton Kutcher to play against type. He's not an obnoxiously smug cocksman this time around, nor is he some meek wallflower. There's not some lesson he has to learn the way you get in a bunch of rom-coms. He's a little on the quiet side, sure, but he's still reasonably confident and obviously sporting those Abercrombie and Fitch coverboy good lucks. Adam does perfectly well with the ladies, although you get the sense he doesn't have to try all that hard to land the ones he's been getting. His dayjob is working as a lowly P.A. on some High School Musical knockoff, and Adam seems to think the way to win Emma over is to follow along with what he learned on TV. He pulls all sorts of cute, kitschy tricks out of the bag that in a Nora Ephron comedy would have her beaming with a smile, but in No Strings Attached, Emma just kind of stares at him in mild horror. I actually really like this
dialed-down version of Ashton Kutcher, and he and Natalie Portman have a ridiculous amount of chemistry together.
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There's a lot that No Strings Attached gets right. The overall tone keeps it cute without getting sappy or cloying until the very, very end, and by that point...well, that's how it's gotta be. The movie's raunchy without being lazy or dumb about it. I know I'm risking my snarky former college radio DJ credentials and all by saying this, but the two songs from the High School Musical spoof are insanely, indescribably, infectiously poppy. Loved 'em, loved 'em, loved 'em. ...plus there are obviously all the cheesecake shots of Natalie Portman, and that's never a bad thing. No Strings Attached piles together a hell of a supporting cast too. Kevin Kline is easily the standout as Adam's womanizing, pot-smoking, former-sitcom-superstar father, and he's joined by Mindy Kaling, Greta Gerwig (who outshines Portman in pretty much every scene they have together!), Guy Branum, Olivia Thirlby, Jennifer Irwin, Abby Elliott, Lake Bell, Cary Elwes, and Jake Johnson. Oh, and Ludacris, but...blah. Don't wanna talk about him. A cast like this can take material that's already better than average and elevate it even higher, keeping the energy and momentum from ever lagging.
The blurb on the front cover reads "smart and sexy", and, sure, I'll buy that. Elizabeth Meriwether's screenplay dishes out a bunch of clever tweaks to the standard issue romantic comedy formula, and she doesn't really go for easy, lazy laughs. It's definitely an appreciated change of pace to see humor more heavily oriented around dialogue and characterization rather than the usual pratfalls and bug-eyed spit takes. The downside is that it's one of those movies where I'll crack a grin or think "oh, that's pretty good", but never really laugh. I really like the approach to the comedy here, but I wish some of it had connected a little more sharply. Doesn't help that Ludacris is a big chunk of the comic relief and is one swing-and-a-miss after another. I'm not anywhere near as over the moon about No Strings Attached the way I was with (500) Days of Summer -- my single favorite movie of 2009, for anyone keeping track at home -- but other than that, I can't think of the last time I watched an out-and-out romantic comedy I liked anywhere near as much as this. I'm sure a lot of you out there were cringing at the trailers the same as I was, but don't let that throw you off. I was pleasantly surprised by No Strings Attached, and...hey! Maybe you will be too. I'm a little iffy about which rating to give since I don't want to oversell a very-good-but-not-exactly-great romantic comedy, but...eh, I'll be nice and go with a Highly Recommended score anyway.
C'mon, No Strings Attached is a glossy, big-budget studio romantic comedy -- of course it looks great. The scope image is ridiculously sharp and detailed, contrast is rock solid, and the bright, candy-colored palette leaps clear off the screen. Run through the long list of stuff that reviews usually gripe about -- excessive noise reduction, edge enhancement, compression artifacting, and all that -- and No Strings Attached steers clear of all of 'em. I can't dig up anything at all to grouse about here...this is just such a pretty, pretty movie.
There are a bunch of people out there who insist that romantic comedies don't benefit all that much from a high-def spit-and-polish, and here are some comparison shots to show how wrong that crowd is. Kinda goes without saying that you'll need to click on these thumbnails and blow 'em up to full size to appreciate the difference:
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The AVC encode for No Strings Attached spans both layers of this BD-50 disc, and the image is letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The second disc in the set is a DVD-slash-digital copy, and it dishes out the movie in anamorphic widescreen.
Nothin' but nice things to say about the way No Strings Attached sounds on Blu-ray either. This disc sports six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio, and it's exactly what you'd hope to hear. The surrounds are kept busy fleshing out a really convincing sense of atmosphere. The low-end is tight and punchy -- mostly for music, like that bluegrass cover of "99 Problems", but the subwoofer reinforces effects like a slammed door really well too. All of the dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly, and it's never overwhelmed in the mix. Is it some smolderingly intense aural experience, teeming with hyperaggressive split-surrounds or whatever? No, but that's not so much the type of movie it is either. The sound design throughout No Strings Attached complements the material very well, and it's at least a notch or two above average for a romantic comedy.
Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and there's even a Descriptive Video Service track for good measure. Meanwhile, subtitles are served up in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Oh, and in case you missed it further up in the review, No Strings Attached tosses on a second disc too: a DVD that'll spin in any set-top player and a digital copy for use on iTunes or Windows Media-powered devices. There's also an offer for 3 free months with perfectmatch.com, although considering it's packed in with a movie whose working title was Fuckbuddies, wouldn't adultfriendfinder.com have been a better fit? No? Guess it's just me.
- Sex Friends: Getting Together (21 min.; HD): This one's
pretty much a straightahead making-of featurette with lots of talking heads and two scoops of behind-the-scenes footage from the set: how the concept came together, its not-so-marketable working title of Fuckbuddies, toying with romantic comedy conventions, lining up a cast, striking just the right tone...solid enough but pretty routine.
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- Inside the Sassy Halls of Secret High (11 min.; HD): Featurette Numero Two-oh takes a look at the High School Musical knockoff that Adam works on. "Inside the Sassy Halls..." breezes through production design (a set within a set within a set?), spelling out the running storyline that I guess I completely missed, chatting up the cast, running through the choreography, and paying extra attention to the pretty awesome birthday song that Kevin Kline wrote and performed himself.
- Modern Love: The Dos and Don'ts (9 min.; HD): This Cosmo-ish guide to dating in the iPhone Age is pretty much exactly what you'd expect. Texting! Social networking! Fuckbuddies!
- Deleted Scenes (11 min.; HD): There are six deleted and extended scenes in this reel, including the full versions of the two infectious and more-than-a-little-bit-Glee-esque musical numbers, "What Good Is a Boy" and "It Was You". The rest of the scenes mostly build on or help set up some of the relationships between the supporting cast. I kinda wish the quick little bit between Eli and Patrie in college had made it in, but the rest of the relationshippy stuff is better off scattered all over the cutting room floor.
- Alternate Storyline Scenes (4 min.; HD): A who-o-o-o-ole bunch of stuff between Lake Bell and Ashton Kutcher's characters got
yoinked out of the finished product, and all of that footage gets its very own heading on the Extras menu.
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- Audio Commentary: Director Ivan Reitman chimes in with a commentary track, but he doesn't really have all that much to say. Reitman has a tendency to narrate what's happening on-screen rather than talk about it, and there's not a whole lot of insight past "this scene was shot in post-production" or "[insert name of actor] is really great". I did enjoy some of his comments about the music and the lack of emphasis on physicality for the comedy, but looking down at my notes again, I really didn't jot down much more than that. Reitman has less and less to say as the movie goes along, and it's such a shame that screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether couldn't have dropped in to help keep more of a conversation going. One thing that does stand out, though: the way Reitman describes it, that "Alternate Storyline Scenes" section ought to be at least a little longer than it is. He describes some additional stuff with Natalie Portman that's nowhere to be found anywhere on this Blu-ray disc.
The Final Word
Hey, I don't have any shame, so I'll admit it: I grabbed No Strings Attached just to ogle Natalie Portman, and I really wasn't expecting anything more out of it than a few cheesecake shots. Turns out that I kinda liked it, though. It's nice to see the standard issue romantic comedy formula shuffled around a bit. Ashton Kutcher breaks away from the smug, obnoxious characters I usually think of him as playing, and he and Natalie Portman have a ridiculous amount of chemistry together. I didn't really laugh all that much, but I did think a bunch of the gags were really clever, and that's gotta count for something. And a supporting cast that includes Greta Gerwig, Kevin Kline, Guy Branum, Jake Johnson, and Mindy Kaling...? Sure, I'm in. No Strings Attached isn't a great movie, but it's so much better that I ever would've expected, and it's closing in on a couple of years since I dug a romantic comedy as much as this one. Highly Recommended.