by James Hansen
In what is sure to come as a surprise to entertainment prognosticators damning Natalie Portman’s Oscar hopes for making her post-Academy Award win “shit movie” before she even wins the award, Portman’s “shit movie” – Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached (and, incidentally, executive produced by Portman) – is far from an awards kiss of death (if you believe in such things) and actually shows more nuance than most mainstream romantic comedies, not to mention “awards movies” which seem more and more willing to abandon any subtlety in favor of bludgeoning audiences with their awardyness.
While not as radical as James L. Brooks’ How Do You Know?, the widely reviled film which found an equally ardent cadre of supporters (#TeamHowDoYouKnow?!), No Strings Attached literally passes over the typically conservative romcom formulas – the film opens with a seemingly sloppy sequence of flashbacks which hopscotch over classic romcom scenarios (questions of teenage virginity at summer camp, slutting it up in college frat houses) – and reverses them. Sex, here, is not an end goal where the triumphant white male claims his prize and high-fives his buddies. Rather, in No Strings Attached, sex is a given component of a relationship, a starting point from which issues of self inevitably arise for both persons involved. It isn’t really a question of “Can sex friends stay best friends?,” but when, why, and how silly pleasure transforms into more complex companionship. Oh yeah, it's also funny.
The aforementioned romcom scenarios revolve around Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher), two sensitive, loner kids at camp who go different directions (he, a frat life at Michigan, she, working to become a doctor at MIT), before ending up in the same place (Los Angeles) where things come full circle. A night of binge drinking with his pals, Wallace (Ludacris!) and Eli (Jake Johnson), ends with Adam waking up in an unfamiliar apartment and re-living the classic college situation, Dude, What’d I Put My Dick In? Luckily, Emma’s doctor roomates, Patrice (the always exciting Greta Gerwig) and Shira (Mindy Kaling), resisted the swoons of a naked, depressed Adam. So, too, did Emma, at least the night before, but a passing glance here, a naked guy there, and their multiple almost-happened moments finally happens. No big deal – some afternoon sex, Emma’s off to work, and Adam heads home.
Naturally, this is just the beginning (else we wouldn’t have a movie). Though the major storylines are all by the book, No Strings Attached gleefully bounds along thanks to the supporting cast. Gerwig, after conquering the indie world with her unique, natural energy, had a breakout year in 2010 with her role in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Here, she provides each of her scenes with a surprising vibrancy, instrumental to the maintaining the film’s casual charm without stopping it dead in its tracks, as so often happens with secondary characters in mainstream comedy. The characters aren't floundering aimlessly in screenplay mechanics, but part of a developed world. (Watch how the crazy producer with a crush on Adam transforms from a one-line joke to an actual character). The awkwardly constructed subplot between Adam, a would-be writer spending his days assisting on a High School Musical knockoff, and his aloof father (Kevin Kline), a famed sitcom actor, comes closest to sinking the film, yet, on the brink of disaster, Kline schmoozes his way through a birthday song, which is funny, yes, but also an exemplary, desperate charade of trying to regain love and respect once it has been lost.
Of course, such charades aren’t needed – something Kline’s ridiculous charicature won’t understand – and, to its credit, No Strings Attached doesn’t solve Adam and Emma’s dilemma with the vapid scenarios that pile up near the film’s conclusion. And while the genre mechanics fall back into all too familiar territory – Emma is the confused one and has to come running back to her [squeaky clean perfect] man, duh – No Strings Attached ends with a nice touch, a punch line, a final reversal of the scenarios it skips at the beginning. For Emma and Adam, it isn’t a question of sex. It’s the problem of breakfast.