By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Ivan Reitman’s “No Strings Attached” is a perfect example of that imperfect film for which I guiltily trot out my fainthearted apologia: “You can enjoy a movie while still fully aware that it isn’t very good cinema.” Never mind that when invoking said caveat I nonetheless fear it could lead to harder stuff, like defending TV’s “Jersey Shore.”
Still, there are these pleasant reminders that man doesn’t live by “Citizen Kane” (1941) or “La Strada” (1954) alone. Their unchallenging incandescence is part of the appeal. But our inclination more often has to do with a fondness for the subject matter at hand. To love, or not to love? That is the question “No Strings Attached” poses.
Charmingly asked by Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher’s bright and shiny faces, the idea is to forget for a moment that the eternal mystery has baffled philosophers since time immemorial. Put up with the predictability and by film’s end, all neatly wrapped up in vicarious wish fulfillment, maybe you’ll have an answer to all your romantic quandaries.
Off and on acquaintances since their sleepover camp days, Miss Portman’s Emma and Mr. Kutcher’s Adam eventually bump their relationship up a notch. Adam, a touchy-feely, would-be writer paying the bills by serving as a stage assistant on a “Glee”-like sitcom, is all agog. Emma, a medical intern, would prefer that things remain clinical.
Like the plaintiff in The Beatles’s “Norwegian Wood,” Adam must sort out the implications of what Mr. Lennon meant when he wrote, “I once had a girl, or should I say she once had me?” But it’s a no-brainer for pragmatic Emma. Let it just be, friends with benefits, as they say. In other words, it’s a real male fantasy…until it actually happens.
Adam’s pals at the local waterhole cheer his luck, showing no patience for his eventual misgivings. They contend he has it all. He wants more. But Emma warns it would sound the affair’s death knell. She’s “not good at relationships.” Besides, he’s “way too happy” for her. Anyway, this works out…the ideal lift between strenuous hospital rounds.
While the usual misunderstandings and Adam’s attempts to circumvent the established ground rules complicate the premise, the clichés are nicely ameliorated by a good piece of side business. Giving a thespic lesson in how less is more, Kevin Kline is just tops as Adam’s dad, a famous actor whose wacky take on love might explain his son’s altruism.
Chemistry-wise, though the love-confused duo won’t threaten William Powell and Myrna Loy, they make it work. Miss Portman is clearly the more accomplished actor and has a more difficult prism of emotion to satisfy. But Mr. Kutcher is smart enough to use her skill to his advantage, and portrays the well-balanced contrast with good restraint.
Among other positives, though surveying a rather contemporary mode of behavior, R rating and all, this is essentially an old fashioned romantic comedy. In a humorously engaging nod to the genre, there is the inclusion of the Cupid-smitten characters’ quirky best friends who, eventually teaming as potential lovers, prove l’amour is contagious.
You know the type. Eve Arden made a career of the wallflower best pal, splendidly exemplified in her role as Molly, the unappreciated executive secretary in “One Touch of Venus” (1948) who ultimately bags her prey. Endearingly self-effacing, she champions romance’s underdogs, making full use of the dizzying aura cast by the primary lovers.
In Emma’s case, the wistful sidekick is roommate and fellow intern, Patrice, nicely played by Greta Gerwig. Her analogous male is Adam’s roommate, Eli, portrayed to good type by Jake Johnson. Serving as sounding boards and lovelorn comparisons, both are confounded by how incognizant of good fortune their better looking buddies are.
But other than the purported, cutting edge way of looking at affectionate entanglements, you can expect no surprises. Fact is, none of this is very new, and I venture to surmise that even among the Sumerians there existed more than one couple who, perhaps even upon threat of death, deemed it advantageous to kissy-face without commitment.
Then again, it’s not the plot per se that attracts us, but the atmosphere and the mulling of the timeless imponderable in question. The less we know about something, the more fascinating it is. And like misery, total perplexity loves company. Thus we judge love stories by how well they might ally with our own philosophy and aspirations.
Not that you’ll ever make sense of it, mind you. Moreover, putting all the songwriters and poets out of business would hurt the economy. Nope, we are destined to agonize and exalt in love’s glorious conundrum. So be careful out there. It’s tricky. As shown here, the phenomenon of love tugs at the heart even when there are “No Strings Attached.”
“No Strings Attached,” rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Ivan Reitman and stars Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Kline. Running time: 108 minutes
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