No Strings Attached Review

No doubt about it folks, we are in the age of the R-rated sex comedy. This explosive trend among movies stems from filmmakers and producers’ never-ending pursuit of making the rare comedy that costs little but rakes in obscene amounts of money. “No Strings Attached” fits the exact profile of a film quite literally strung together with the hopes of getting its cup under the R-rated sex comedy tap and catching a few precious drops of what has been comedy gold the last five years. And if 2011’s first romantic comedy is any indication, that cup hath runneth dry.

Natalie Portman, the darling of Hollywood right now coming off her Golden Globe (and what will likely be an Oscar) win for “Black Swan” and the somehow always-popular Ashton Kutcher co-star in what amounts to “Friends with Benefits 101,” or a very rudimentary telling of how two people come to and work through a decision to use each other strictly for sex. Although no movie has highlighted this story line so explicitly, most young people are aware of the concept, yet the film takes us through the motions as if we’re all 50-something and aren’t aware such progressive sexual arrangements exist.

That’s why veteran director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”) proves immediately to be out of place. He appears to have been handed Elizabeth Meriwether’s script and told “this is what’s popular now, go do it.” Meriwether certainly didn’t go out of her way to divert from formula as “No Strings” overflows with plot-subservient supporting characters (the roommates and friends of our “not lovers”) and injections of foul-mouthed humor, but a more modern comedy director wouldn’t have exposed those ploys as brutally as Reitman does.

The film takes us from the beginning of Adam and Emma’s acquaintanceship (they were never really friends before the sex happened), which started at a summer camp when Adam attempted to mope about his parents’ divorce to Emma in hopes of a sympathy hook up. Deciding to be frank, he asks to finger her. This is the movie’s first attempt at slapping in “modern” and “R-rated” sex jokes. Maybe that would’ve been funny in 2005, but our over-exposure to dirty dialogue in film has — and rightfully so — desensitized us to laughing at, for example, any time the word “penis” or a variation on “penis” gets tossed into a movie script as “No Strings” so often does. In fact, by comparison to similar comedies, the movie hardly warrants an R rating.

As romantic comedy fans know, however, great chemistry in the leads can help remedy even the worst of situations. To some degree, Portman and Kutcher have something that works, but Adam and Emma are so poorly set up that it slightly undermines Kutcher’s sweet and surprisingly sympathy-worthy performance and Portman’s excellent ability to reveal all her characters’ inner thoughts and feelings. When they first have sex, it should in theory be an enormous release of sexual tension for the audience, but it feels as if it just happens for the sake of there being a movie. That’s the real problem with “No Strings Attached”: as genuine as the characters can feel at times, they all ultimately feel like pawns of or cogs in a formula to deliver us a story. A good film executes like a real-life or at least intriguing situation that the audience gets to peek in on.

So like any film with an absurd amount of pieces, the characters surrounding Adam and Emma either insignificant to us or we like them but their screen time is completely short-changed. Meriwether would have been better served to cut down on the amount of friends and roommates and relatives and add dimension to the better of the bunch. Among the list of those who deserved more attention are Greta Gerwig as one of Emma’s roommates, Lake Bell as one of the assistant producers on the “Glee”-type TV show Adam works for and SNLer Abby Elliot as a bartender who does weird impersonations. Unfortunately, the most intriguing supporting role, belonging to Kevin Kline as Adam’s former TV star dad who starts seeing his ex-girlfriend and loves drugs, falls flat.

The lack of laughs and botched attempts at “hip” jokes, however, are the root of the film’s problems. After Emma gets drunk on tequila shots one night after she and Adam have decided to sleep with other people, she goes to Adam’s place and finds him with two other girls whom she proceeds yell at, calling them “pumpkins” for absolutely no reason. It plays like a bad cut of improv, but Reitman seems to have blind faith that that’s what “comedy” is these days.

You’d really like to give credit to Portman, Kutcher and many of the other actors who attempted to build likable characters despite how processed they come across in the story itself, but “No Strings Attached” never relents in its dependency on formula. We all know how a romantic comedy will end (except 2006’s “The Break-Up”), but when you know how it will start and middle, that’s busting the illusion that fans of the genre pay good money to be fooled by. Sadly, the fact that there’s no disguising the film’s attempt to jump on the sex comedy bandwagon undermines nearly everything, perhaps even the bandwagon itself.

2/5 Stars

No Strings Attached
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by Elizabeth Meriwether, Michael Samonek
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell


  1. hayley says:

    “penis” is a dirty word? since when? this word serves as the name of the male reproduction organ in a fairly neutral or even slightly medical register. please, you’re treating everyone as if we were all kids, as if sex is something one shouldn’t mention at all cost. we’re not living in Victorian times, have mercy on us all. thanks to attitudes like yours, which try to separate sexuality from love and relationships, confused and horny youngsters turn to internet and online porn for information about sex, which of course usually ends badly. grow up, seriously, sex is nothing to be ashamed of, it is an integral part of love and affection.

    I’m sick and tired of romantic comedies pretending 20 or 30 something people are pure, innocent, chaste and have a libido of a dead fish.

  2. Steven says:

    Hayley, it appears as if you’ve horribly misread that section of my review. I’m really hoping you’re just a spammer because otherwise you couldn’t be more wrong in analyzing what I said. I merely suggested that these films think constant uses of the word “penis,” which I don’t classify as a dirty word at all in my review, are supposed to be be funny. I said nothing about it being inappropriate and everything about it being stupid because we live in an age where movies are more open about it. That’s a good thing and it makes words like “penis” as neutral as it should be and hence adding in extra uses of the word seems odd and stupid. If they want to use penis in a clever original joke, I will happily laugh at that use of the word as I would with any other word the good King’s English has given us.

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