Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Cary Elwes, Greta Gerwig, Kevin Kline, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby
Amidst the sea of potential Oscar noms currently flooding the multiplexes in the days leading up to the nominations announcement, Hollywood's studios have a tendency to toss out their cinematic afterthoughts and expected box-office duds.
While No Strings Attached is no threat to any of our expected awards nominees in terms of critical praise or golden statuettes, this Ivan Reitman directed romantic comedy co-starring Natalie Portman, a likely Oscar nominee for her devastatingly brilliant performance in Black Swan, and Ashton Kutcher is a surprisingly pleasing cinematic endeavor likely to please moviegoers hungry for a lightweight flick or a lightweight, breezy date night.
Having such a lightweight endeavor can prove troublesome for a performer hoping to gain awards cred during Oscar season - Remember, for example, Eddie Murphy's potential Oscar bid for his praiseworthy performance in Dreamgirls? What happened in the weeks leading up to the Oscars? Voters got the chance to see a film more symbolic of Murphy's recent work - the disastrous Norbit, a film almost universally panned. Is it a coincidence that suddenly Murphy's Oscar potential suddenly plummeted? I think not.
Fortunately, while No Strings Attached is undeniably a lightweight, formulaic romantic comedy that constantly feels like it's going to disintegrate into nothingness it never actually does disintegrate largely on the strength of Portman's winning, warm performance and Reitman's best directing job in quite a few years (Admittedly, that's not saying much.).
Portman is Emma, an emergency room physician with serious commitment issues, who has been a sort of casual friend of Adam's (Ashton Kutcher) for quite awhile when friendship suddenly turns into a one-night stand and a one-night stand turns into a series of, you guessed it, "no strings attached" one-night stands because the sex is good and the company is good enough.
Of course, this wouldn't be a romantic comedy if the romantic part didn't eventually creep in to the scenario and when it does Portman is at her best and most appealing. While there's not a cinematically informed soul alive who would prefer this performance over her turn in Black Swan, it certainly speaks to the breadth of her talent that she turns in two such diverse films back-to-back. Norbit reminded audiences and Oscar voters of Murphy's typical performance, while No Strings Attached will have voters thinking "Oh man, I love Natalie Portman. Isn't she freaking incredible in Black Swan?"
While there's nothing particularly incredible about Ashton Kutcher here, in fact he again reminds that he doesn't have the range to pull off emotionally revealing scenes, No Strings Attached does offer Kutcher the chance to be the Ashton Kutcher that America seems to like - a handsome, funny and "comfortable" leading man despite his being completely outshone by Portman here. In fact, one of the film's key problems, and it very nearly sinks the film, is that Portman is so much stronger than Kutcher that there are times the film's emotional balance is tilted and this "romantic" comedy seems like it ought to just be about Emma herself.
Kevin Kline, one of America's best actors who seems to have a knack for choosing underwhelming projects, also shines as Adam's pot-smoking dad, a lecherous older guy who has taken up with Adam's former girlfriend and who provides the perfect counterpoint to Adam's more heart-ruled world. Greta Gerwig, unfortunately unlikely to see any awards recognition for her turn in 2010's Greenberg, is a delight as Emma's playful and witty friend Patrice, while supporting players Jake Johnson, Lake Bell and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges perform admirably.
With her first feature film script, Elizabeth Meriwether unquestionably borrows from the romantic comedy formula yet avoids allowing No Strings Attached to become defined by it. While "Boy Meets Girl," "Boy Sleeps With Girl" and "Boy and Girl Fall In Love" isn't exactly original, it's made all the better with better than usual defined characters with woven together quirks of humanity and humor. Rather than simply say "Emma has commitment issues," we're given moments to understand her history and circumstances in such a way that makes you that much more happy when everything works out in the end even though you KNOW everything's going to work out in the end. The same is true, as well, for Adam, a young man so clearly affected by his father's aberrant behavior that you can't help but hope that Adam's the one who wins in the end here.
There's a a solid argument that a film such as No Strings Attached needn't be a mega bucks feature film, however, in this day and age of even the most basic Hollywood dreck being budgeted at $100 million or more it's a bit refreshing to see a competently made film such as No Strings Attached put together on a fairly modest, by Hollywood's standards, budget of $25 million. Though, to be honest, as a film journalist who regularly reviews microcinema there's no question I've reviewed films just as well made and entertaining made for $10,000 or even less.
D.P. Rogier Stoffers lenses the film nicely, giving the film a more relaxed and realistic appearance rather than the usual washed-out rom-com that so dominates the Hollywood scene. While it's premature to announce that director Ivan Reitman is back in fine form, No Strings Attached is a pleasant surprise likely to please fans of both leads and containing enough heart and humor to please most moviegoers who've grown weary of this season's heavy themes and hardcore dramas.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic