At the heart of most romantic comedies these days is the same sickly sweet core, where two people come together despite all obstacles, misunderstandings and pesky previous indications of their personalities and character. Laboring under the impression that it somehow adds an edgy and fresh angle to the formula, No Strings Attached is an overstuffed, overdone film lacking in both the comedic and romantic departments.
The conceit of “friends with benefits” is hardly new, yet Hollywood producers seem to think they’ve stumbled upon a goldmine of novelty. Don’t believe me? We’ve already got another one of these coming up later this year, titled … wait for it … Friends with Benefits. Adding this slight wrinkle to the most hidebound of genres does not make a tired concept trendy or automatically ensure bawdy laughs. (You want something really amusing? Check out the parade of middle-aged producers elucidating the “sex friends” concept in the special features.)
Lacking the truly raunchy soul that its original title Fuck Buddies suggests, No Strings Attached sprinkles in the R-rated material sporadically and clumsily. Instead, the film is far more interested in the romantic elements of Elizabeth Meriwether’s script.
Adam (Ashton Kutcher) is a PA on a High School Musical clone, while Emma (Natalie Portman) is a hard-working resident at a hospital. The two bump into each other a number of times over the years, and eventually have impulse sex one day. They decide to parlay it into an agreement where they’ll be friends, have regular sex and keep a set of ground rules to prevent things from getting messy. Sound familiar? Seinfeld did this about 20 years ago in an episode called “The Deal” way back in season two, and with much more incisiveness about the nature of modern relationships.
Anyway, the sex lasts about five minutes in a montage of various positions, and then we get to spend the rest of the film watching Adam mope because — surprise, surprise — he wants more out of the relationship. Emma is steadfastly committed to the arrangement and doesn’t want emotional involvement. Who’s going to get what they want? Oh wait, turns out they both want the same thing! No more plot summary necessary.
That might all be well and fine if Kutcher and Portman shared even an iota of chemistry, but they’re just playing on different levels here. Her recent Oscar win notwithstanding, Portman doesn’t possess much gravitas as an actor, but she seems like Katharine Hepburn paired with Kutcher, whose mugging smirk is about the only tool in his shed.
Perhaps to compensate, the film packs in the supporting players, with some real charmers (Greta Gerwig as Emma’s friend, Kevin Kline as Adam’s dad, Olivia Thirlby as Emma’s sister), some less-impressive thespians (Ludacris as Adam’s friend and Lake Bell as an eleventh-hour romantic alternative), and some curious non-entities (Cary Elwes gets about three minutes of screen time, and it’s not a cameo role, and Mindy Kaling is around a lot, but seems totally wasted.) The screenplay does none of these characters justice, save Kline’s boozing, skirt-chasing father, who evokes about the only laughs the film has.
Directed by Ivan Reitman (who’s certainly helmed worse), the film reeks of competency, and that’s kind of too bad. An utter train wreck might’ve been the only thing that saved it from being just the latest in a long line of uninspired rom-coms. The fact that it thinks it’s more than that just makes it worse.
The Blu-ray Disc
No Strings Attached is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The film looks as great as you’d expect a brand-new major studio release to look. Colors are bright and warm, fine detail is always apparent, contrast is solid and the image is never less than sharp and appealing. Digital tampering is nonexistent and damage is nowhere to be seen.
Audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that’s nicely immersive, with solid separation and totally crisp front channel dialogue.
A making-of featurette titled Sex Friends: Getting Together follows an expected path with interviews from a lot of cast and crew, and as previously mentioned, carries a mystifying back-slapping tone as if the film is the first piece of media to broach the subject. There’s a similarly deluded tone to Inside the Sassy Halls of Secret High where the show-within-the-film is described as a parody of High School Musical. A knockoff with worse lyrics does not equal a parody, folks.
Modern Love: The Do’s and Don’ts features some shallow observations about navigating the modern relationship pool from cast and crew, while a handful of deleted scenes total about 10 minutes. Listed separately are two deleted scenes from a subplot between Kutcher and Bell’s characters that was mostly cut from the film. Reitman also contributes a commentary track for the film itself.
The Bottom Line
Nowhere near as clever or groundbreaking it thinks it is, and lacking the emotional chemistry to even make for a serviceable romantic jaunt, No Strings Attached is a nearly two-hour time suck.