Ivan Reitman was once one of the three biggest directors on the planet. Natalie Portman is on her way to her first Academy Award. Ashton Kutcher…well, he entered the word “Punked” into the lexicon. You team up the three of them for an R-rated romantic comedy about two people who enter into a “fuck buddy” agreement and it sounds like a recipe for success, right?
Okay, maybe it doesn’t at all, considering that Ivan Reitman hasn’t been “Ivan Reitman” since the 80s, Natalie Portman has often slummed in movies that aren’t worthy of her talents, and Ashton Kutcher is…well, Ashton Kutcher. Still, for some reason, I decided that I would walk into the movie theater a month after its release and check out No Strings Attached.
This is actually a fascinating movie to dissect because it does so many things right while simultaneously doing just as many things wrong. Every time it takes a step forward or does something interesting, it will take a step backwards into convention. For example, the film gets off to an inauspicious start by blatantly aping When Harry Met Sally and showing our two main characters as they meet several times over the years before finally settling into a “friendship” that revolves mostly around sex. However, the way in which they fall in bed together is kind of clever and out of the ordinary.
Another example: Kutcher’s friends in the film are stock characters that are given one note to play and they play that one note loudly. Ludacris plays the “urban” friend and that’s his role from beginning to end, while Jake Johnson plays the token “loud” friend who is brash and “wacky” and has two gay dads, so that explains…absolutely nothing about his character. However, on the flip side, we get the interesting perspectives of Portman’s friends who are all doctors like she is. Her friends, played by Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling, seem more fully developed and interesting than the two leads of the film. I desperately wanted the film to turn into a Grey’s Anatomy kind of show, but based around Gerwig and Kaling. Alas.
One more example: Portman is given a typical asshole guy as her “other option.” He has no depth whatsoever and says a couple of rude comments to Kutcher about how Kutcher is just a boytoy while he will be the one that Portman marries. On the flip side, Kutcher is given Lake Bell as his “other option” and she is such a delight that I actually wanted him to wind up with her. She is supportive and engaging and cares about him. Which is more than can be said for Portman’s character…
Which leads me to my biggest problem with the film: I don’t want the two leads to end up together. Despite the fact that the film desperately wants me to be engaged in their romance, I was consistently put off by the fact that Portman’s character is cold, moody, and anti-relationship for no good reason. She’s stressed, she doesn’t have time, blah blah blah. The conceit of her character is that she is against being in a relationship, forever and for always, but why the hell is this so? We are never given a concrete reason why she wouldn’t want to be with a guy who she consistently calls wonderful in every aspect of his being. What is holding her back from entering into this relationship besides the constraints of the premise? The only reason this movie isn’t 30 minutes long is because the script demands that there should be obstacles in the way. Except, the movie never comes up with a convincing obstacle outside of Portman’s reluctance to be in this relationship for no goddamned reason whatsoever. I was sitting there, thinking, “Shit, I really hope Kutcher ends up with Lake Bell since she actually seems to care for him.”
The other massive problem with the film is that it has too many characters and too many subplots. Jake Johnson is dating Greta Gerwig in the background and it doesn’t mean anything to us because we don’t know their relationship at all. Also, Kevin Kline plays Kutcher’s lothario father who is sleeping with Kutcher’s ex. Snooze. We also have Cary Elwes inexplicably showing up once in a while as a doctor that Portman hits on and it goes…nowhere. Or Olivia Thirlby as Portman’s little sister who is getting married and shows us that…marriage is possible? Or how about Portman’s mother who is sleeping with a man named Bones…nowhere. The wonderful Abby Elliott shows up as a waitress for a few scenes…wasted.
All of these characters, all of these subplots, what are they adding to this world that has been created? What are we, the audience, gaining from their inclusion? The answer is, now and for always, nothing. It’s like the film doesn’t trust its central premise and the charisma of its two leads enough to actually run with them. I mean, we have a premise that is potentially interesting and ripe for a good romantic comedy: friends who have sex. But instead of focusing on how that works, what the slow emotional boil of that kind of relationship is really like, we are instead given a short montage of scenes of them having sex and a few big set-pieces and then a lot of bullshit that really doesn’t have anything to do with the premise. Instead, the film fans out to multiple characters and different subplots (did I mention that Kutcher is an aspiring writer for a Gleeish TV show?) that paper over the initial conceit. What that does is make me less invested in the relationship I should be invested in and more invested on when the hell the movie is going to be over.
What really kills me are that some of the supporting characters are funny and some of the inter-personal complexities of love in this modern era are spot-on and strike a chord. But, it always reverts back to these conventional moments and you can really feel the McKeeish way the script was structured. You can time your watch to it: “Oh, time for the inciting incident!” “We’re about 65 minutes in, time for the big fight!”
Look, this is mediocre cinema anyway you slice it, so nobody comes out of the film covered in muck and nobody walks out smelling like a daisy either. Portman gets to have a filthy mouth (and keep her bra on during sex, something that always pulls me out of every goddamned sex scene) and Kutcher gets to be starry-eyed and show his ass, but neither are really getting anything out of this movie except a paycheck. Reitman, the man who brought us Stripes and Ghostbuster, has now directed his best film since Dave…which isn’t really saying much when you look at the film he’s directed since then (we’re talking Father’s Day, 6 Days 7 Nights, Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend) and has also clearly checked out as a filmmaker worth paying attention to.
This is the kind of picture that will horrify no one and will please very few. It’s an airplane movie, and a shrug-inducing one at that. Oddly, I’m really looking forward to Will Gluck’s Friends with Benefits, to see how Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis do with similar subject matter.