The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


No Strings Attached
Natalie Portman had more chemistry with Mila Kunis than she does with Ashton Kutcher.

Sexuality is one of the most psychologically revealing parts of any human being. For that reason, if you're going to make a movie about sex, you have an obligation to be honest about it. We need to know why characters are having sex - what motivates them, how they feel about it, what their expression of sexuality says about them. Do it right and you end up with Last Tango in Paris or, on the comedic side, The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Do it incorrectly and you end up with No Strings Attached. This is a movie that introduces a very provocative idea, only to progressively water it down until the audience is left with a generic romantic comedy virtually indistinguishable from all the other generic romantic comedies.

Things get off on the wrong foot immediately, with a series of sloppy flashbacks in which Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) keep coincidentally running into each other over the years. They finally solidify their friendship as adults. He's an aspiring screenwriter, she's a med student. One night, they spontaneously have sex, leading Emma to suggest that they become "friends with benefits," i.e. have a sexual relationship with no emotional component. Adam inexplicably agrees, despite the fact that we can tell from the get-go that he has feelings for her. The two begin shagging like rabbits, and eventually Adam cannot repress his feelings any longer. Emma immediately becomes freaked out. We're told that she has deep-seated relationship fears, although the film never tells us what they are or from where they originated. Suddenly their "simple" arrangement becomes much more complicated.

That could be an intriguing premise for a movie, but No Strings Attached doesn't know what to do with it. I can't remember the last time I saw a picture in which the characters behaved so inconsistently from scene to scene. Adam courts Emma, then agrees to meaningless sex, then tries to romance her, then (at her suggestion) tries to pick up other women. Emma, meanwhile, says she doesn't like dating, then starts dating a fellow doctor while still sleeping with Adam, then seems to develop feelings for her friend, only to physically attack him when he confesses his own feelings. These characters are all over the map, and my inability to understand them impeded my ability to care about them.

The screenplay by Elizabeth Meriwether never makes clear why either character would agree to such an arrangement, which, let's face it, comes with a lot of obvious complications. This is what I mean about being honest. Meriwether and director Ivan Reitman don't give them any genuine motivation for their actions; Adam and Emma have "meaningless" sex because, well, that's ostensibly the premise. As such, No Strings Attached feels like it is shying away from its own subject. After introducing the idea of "friends with benefits," it doesn't have the courage to actually go through with it. The film would have been so much more interesting had it really explored the thought process people would have to put themselves through in order to carry out this kind of plan.

I will assume here that you have seen other romantic comedies and can therefore guess what happens. I will assume it is not a spoiler to tell you that many of the conventions of the genre are recycled, including the bit where one character rushes to profess his/her love to another, only to arrive at the exact moment that person is in someone else's arms. And, of course, one supporting character has a well-timed medical crisis to ensure that all the vital players are reunited at a crucial moment.

Another problem is the movie's penchant for introducing people into Adam and Emma's world, only to give them nothing to do. That fellow doctor Emma dates threatens Adam, yet nothing ever comes of it. And poor Cary Elwes is third-billed behind Portman and Kutcher, yet largely stands in the background of several scenes. I kept waiting for him to be brought into the action; he never is. One can only assume his scenes hit the cutting room floor.

This is a rare misstep for Natalie Portman, all the more unfortunate for coming on the heels of her triumphant work in Black Swan. She does what she can with the material, but is forced to play a character with such erratic behavior that she fundamentally never makes sense to us. Kutcher, meanwhile, does the same kind of lovestruck-puppy shtick he did in Valentine's Day and A Lot Like Love. Faring better are the supporting players, especially Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) and Mindy Kaling ("The Office") as Emma's quirky friends, and Lake Bell as Adam's smitten co-worker. At least they have some amusement value.

I'd like to see a mature, thoughtful exploration of friends with benefits. No Strings Attached isn't it. Without the attention to detail in theme and characterization, the movie lacks emotional honesty, and therefore resonance. This is not a film about people willfully engaging in casual sex; it's an exercise in going through the motions of the romantic comedy formula, with only a slightly edgier premise to set it apart.

( 1/2 out of four)

No Strings Attached is rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.