You know the story. Boy
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
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:
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.
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.