It’s nice to see that Ashton Kutcher has made a career out of playing himself. He jumps from What Happens in Vegas to Valentine’s Day to Killers, and besides the addition of a gun or a flower shop here and there, he’s the same man-boy he was when he got into acting at 19. He spins straw into gold–the straw being cheesy TV shows and bad romantic comedies, the gold being that No Strings Attached is currently #1 at the box office. The boy sticks with what he knows, and there’s something to be said for that.
But Natalie Portman, I expect better from you.
There are a couple intriguing things about No Strings Attached. For starters, there is a movie with the exact same premise coming out this summer starring Portman’s Black Swan costar, Mila Kunis. The trailers for the two flicks (Kunis’ is called Friends With Benefits) were released within arm’s reach of one another, and everyone scratched their heads while they compared the two. Did the two actresses talk about it on set? Did they laugh when they realized they were doing the same movie? We’ll have to see how Kunis fares with The Social Network’s Justin Timberlake this summer, but everyone should cross their fingers for an improvement.
The second eyebrow-raiser about this movie is that it stars Natalie Portman. She shaved her head for V For Vendetta, trained for a year and lost 20 pounds for Black Swan, and starred in Zach Braff’s completely independent film Garden State. She is known for making unusual choices and going the distance with her work. What sets Portman apart from all the other rising starlets in Hollywood is that she doesn’t make commercial date night movies. So when I saw the trailer, I thought there was no way Portman could go from a Golden Globe-winning performance in Black Swan to just another Ashton Kutcher rom-com. There had to be something different and special about this movie to make her take it. Maybe she was going to deliver us from the tragic demise of the romantic comedy.
No such luck, friends.
No Strings Attached starts off all right enough. There are three back-in-time scenes: 15 years, five years, one year. It sort of reeks of Kutcher’s 2005 film A Lot Like Love, which had the same beginning structure but was also a flop. But you know, When Harry Met Sally did the same thing, and it’s considered one of the best romantic comedies of all time.
Eventually we get to the “sex friends” relationship we know is coming. Kutcher’s character Adam wants to cuddle; Portman’s Emma does not. But I’m begging the screenwriter to let me in on the secret. WHY doesn’t Emma want to cuddle? The movie establishes that she’s a huge emotional cripple–so much so that even in the scene when they’re fourteen, Emma has a hard time comforting Adam about his parents’ divorce. The theme of the movie is not even a friends with benefits relationship–it’s about a guy who loves a girl who doesn’t know how to love him back. And what is so frustrating about No Strings Attached is that it doesn’t realize its own theme. It never really goes there to delve into Emma’s emotional problems.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Portman said she had always wanted to do a romantic comedy, but she was offended and afraid of the cliched montages and women who just want to get married. (Sorry honey, but this one is cliched too–you have a sex montage and you’re not the first person to play a gender role-reversed woman.) But with that nugget of information, it becomes painfully clear why Portman chose this role. She is Emma.
Emma is afraid of being that relationship girl, and Portman is afraid of being that rom-com actress. They’re both smart, successful women–Emma even attended MIT, the other elite Boston university to Portman’s Harvard. But if Portman really wanted to do a romantic comedy, she should have captured the nuances of her character. In some ways, this film is a cheesed up, underwritten version of (500 Days Of) Summer, except the couple ends up together and the actors don’t understand how their characters tick. There is none of the beautiful subtlety that you find in real life and extra of the awkward, over the top situations that only occur in Hollywood.
It’s good for a substantial amount of laughs though. And Portman does make her scary Black Swan face a few times, reminding her audience almost irritatingly that she’s still a (soon-to-be) Oscar-winning actress.