Ivan Reitman’s first filmmaking endeavour since 2006, No Strings Attached is an attempt to explore “fuck buddy” relationships within the context of a mainstream romantic comedy. In other words, it delves into the same territory as 2010’s Love and Other Drugs with a heavier smattering of cliché. In terms of positive assets, the central pair of lovers (and the actors portraying them, for that matter) have genuine chemistry, while the rest of the acting ensemble sparkle with wit and charm. On the downside, No Strings Attached is far from perfect, even if it’s just taken as a fluffy comedy. It may be just passable enough that you’ll endure the flick for its entirety, but afterwards you will likely be left with a resoundingly bland taste in your mouth. Not to mention, you won’t come away from No Strings Attached thinking that it’s one of 2011’s funniest or most romantic cinematic offerings.
Since their early teenage years, Emma (Portman) and Adam (Kutcher) have found their lives to be intertwined; running into one another every few years, but avoiding a relationship in spite of an obvious mutual physical attraction. In present day, Emma is a hard-working medical intern with no interest in a serious relationship, while Adam is stuck as a lowly production assistant on a Glee-esque television show. After crossing each other’s paths yet again, the two impulsively have sex, and in coming days Emma proposes that the two begin a “fuck buddy” relationship free of commitment. Adam gleefully embraces the idea. However, while Adam still retains hope that something more serious will eventually develop, Emma is far too hesitant to take things to the next step.
No Strings Attached melds romantic comedy with edgy subject matter, promising to provide an incisive exploration of the consequences of sex without emotional attachment. However, the film plays it far too safe, so you know precisely how the proceedings will play out. After all, there’s no way in hell that studio executives were going to let a star-studded rom-com end audaciously and unconventionally (à la 2009’s brilliant indie (500) Days of Summer), because an average couple (and, thus, the target audience) want to leave a cinema with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Bolder equals less profit, after all, and nobody knows that better than Hollywood executives. No Strings Attached was produced for a measly $25 million which should have allowed leeway for the film to be daring, but making as much money as possible was more important, especially since it would’ve taken a Herculean struggle in itself just to have the film be R-rated. Rom-com consumers who love the formula in all its forms may appreciate the comfort associated with No Strings Attached, but the unabashed conventionality of Elizabeth Meriwether’s screenplay will most likely come across as pure laziness to more casual film-goers.
To be fair, No Strings Attached is not excruciating. Ivan Reitman has helmed a number of worthwhile comedies during his career (including Stripes and Kindergarten Cop), so the film is often entertaining enough. From a technical perspective this is a solid effort as well, with handsome production values and a constantly enjoyable soundtrack made up of charming, delightful tunes. In terms of laughs, the film delivers from time to time, though the laugh quotient is not as high as one might expect from a production like this. The film also plods during certain sections, unfortunately – there are a few laugh-free stretches of pure rom-com formula (for instance the “break up to make up” section) which are meant to be mistaken as evidence of cinematic maturity, but Reitman was unable to enliven them.
Movie sex scenes with Natalie Portman are like eclipses or sightings of Hayley’s Comet – they’re very rare, and you just hope that you’ll witness at least one in your lifetime. In terms of her actual performance, Portman acquits herself quite well; nailing the various facets of her role. Alongside her, Ashton Kutcher was traversing more familiar terrain as Adam. He’s well-known for playing a good-hearted puppy dog of a romantic lead, and thus No Strings Attached at no point challenges his acting abilities. Nonetheless, Kutcher is strong in his role, and he shares great chemistry and camaraderie with Portman. In this type of romantic comedy, supporting roles are usually just thankless throwaways, but in No Strings Attached, the typically thankless roles were energised by excellent writing and an ideal bunch of actors. Kevin Kline in particular is a scene-stealer, delivering a bunch of amusing lines and generally emanating hilarity. The extensive roster of memorable supporting characters was further filled out by the unbelievably adorable Greta Gerwig as one of Emma’s roommates, the always-reliable Cary Elwes as a doctor, and the hilarious Ludacris as one of Adam’s witty best friends, just to name a few.
With its mainstream-pandering vibe, No Strings Attached sacrifices thematic integrity in order to widen its appeal as much as possible. Unfortunately, the film attempts to have it both ways; trying to generate a veneer of maturity while dishing up laughs and the clichés that casual movie fans will be comfortable with. Suffice it to say, the merger of these two distinct styles is rather squiffy, resulting in a fun enough surface-level ride that would have been easily superior if the screenwriter simply chose one specific style and stuck with it.