Last week I talked about Seth Rogen, who had been MIA for awhile and returned with a comedic vengeance in The Green Hornet and now it’s time for at least a step in the right direction for someone else. Ivan Reitman has only directed three films now in the last ten years and could possibly be on a comeback tour. As lame as My Super Ex-Girlfriend was at least Evolution had more elements to it that worked than didn’t. With No Strings Attached, Reitman may finally have a true hit on his hands even if he’s still not up to par with his greatest hits of the 80s.
With all the buzz surrounding Natalie Portman as of late (Black Swan), most people are already considering No Strings Attached to be her Norbit. It seems like there’s always someone following up a powerhouse Oscar-bait performance with another disastrous film right before the big show. At least this time Portman has again chosen more wisely than others (Valentine’s Day, The Back-up Plan) in her walk of shame through the rom-com genre. And were it not for the association of her co-star, Ashton Kutcher, and being released mid-January, no one would be speaking as ill of the film before seeing it as they already are.
Starting “15 Years Ago,” we meet the younger versions of Adam (Dylan Hayes) and Emma (Stefanie Scott) having the worst meet-cute ever. While he seeks condolence over his parents divorcing, Adam point blank asks Emma if he can finger her. (Yeah, you read that right.) Skipping ahead to “5 Years Ago,” we find the Kutcher/Portman versions of Adam and Emma meeting again at a college pajama party where Emma’s idea of appropriate attire is long johns deeming her a “sexy pioneer.” Emma likes Adam enough to innocently ask him to go with her to “some stupid thing” the next day. Turns out “some stupid thing” is her father’s funeral where afterwards she sends him on his way telling him that if he’s lucky he’ll never see her again.
Now, “1 Year Ago,” we have Emma and Adam running into each other yet again where she gives him her number so they can hang out even while Adam’s current girlfriend, Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond), kisses everyone hello in the background. Finally getting to the present day we find Adam working as an assistant on a TV show, Secret High, amidst a floozy boss (Jennifer Irwin) and her assistant/Adam’s unrequited love slave, Lucy (the dreadfully awkward and super annoying Lake Bell). Adam used to write in college and has written a script for the TV show but first he takes it to his dad, Alvin (Kevin Kline), for a once over. While Adam and Alvin smoke some dope and we find out Alvin is now sleeping with Vanessa since she broke up with Adam, Adam goes on a self-destructive binge-drinking contest to find anyone in his phone who will sleep with him.
The next morning Adam wakes up naked in an apartment filled to the brim with people he may have or may not have slept with, we also find out that Emma lives there too. She takes Adam into her bedroom so he can get dressed where of course their genitals take over for a meeting of the minds. After they decide they had so much fun bumping coitus they come up with the “brilliant” idea to just be sex buddies. They even set up a list of rules such as, “no fighting” and “no jealousy.” With this being a rom-com and all, you can only guess what eventually rears its ugly head.
The standard will they/won’t they pitfalls happen and the pace courses along from one gross-out joke to the next. You’ll never think of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” the same way again after its inclusion on a menstrual mix-tape. While it is refreshing to hear girls say natural lines such as, “It’s like a crime scene in my pants,” not all of the so-called gags work as well as the others. The never-ending barrage of Alvin’s-trying-to-be-young-and-hip jokes wear thin right from the first scene and most of the film plays out like a bawdy ’80s sex comedy butting heads with the Farrelly Brothers heyday of the ’90s while incorporating as many Judd Apatow sensibilities mingling amongst the tech-savvy culture of today. Reitman even tries to set his sights on his own Jerry Maguire moment but it only sort of works.
Holding everything together is its cast. While the supporting players are hit and miss (featuring an eclectic bunch including Greta Gerwig, Jake Johnson, Mindy Kaling, Olivia Thirlby, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges and Abby Elliot) everyone seems to be vying for screen time. Thankfully, Portman more than rises to the occasion here and shows that she is perfect no matter what the genre. Rumor has it too that she’s written a raunchy sex comedy for herself to star in and if this is her warm up, I can’t wait to see her in real action. She nails every joke with precision sometimes even making Kutcher have an honest disbelief on his face. If you don’t laugh at Portman driving down the freeway eating a box of donut holes, crying and singing along to Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love,” or spouting lines like, “That hole is my bitch!” while miniature golfing then something’s wrong.
All in all, in the end you know how the movie is going to turn out, but at least it doesn’t fall under all of the rom-com clichés. Much of the film feels like they took the original script from Elizabeth Meriweather and ramped up the language factor. For a movie centering so distinctly on sex and trying to wear its R-rating with pride, too much feels forced and there’s not even an ounce of real nudity (sorry, Kutcher’s stunt butt doesn’t count). This is almost the exact opposite of Easy A. There director Will Gluck took an R-rated script and toned it down to a more accessible PG-13 with ease. And it almost seems too coincidental that Gluck has his own movie coming out in July aptly titled Friends with Benefits. With Ivan Reitman stumbling as much as he scores here, we’ll just have to wait and see which of the two winds up being the real winner in the battle of the sex flicks.
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