For the past year or so, I’ve been grading romantic comedies on a curve: Going the Distance got a break because of the minimalism of its low-concept plot and because it allowed its female lead, played by Drew Barrymore, to crack actual jokes that were occasionally even funny. Love and Other Drugs and How Do You Know got extra credit for being big, sprawling, and ambitious, even if they fell short of pulling off their hairpin swerves from drama to comedy. But for 2011, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy around here. No Strings Attached (Paramount Pictures), directed by ‘80s comedy legend Ivan Reitman ( Ghostbusters!) and starring the Oscar-seeking Natalie Portman and a large cast of able comic performers, has no excuse for being as wan, charmless, and laugh-free as it is. Rom-com writers of America, you’re going to have to step up your game.
No Strings Attached was initially conceived as a raunchy female buddy comedy with the tough-to-market title F**k Buddies. Then the title was changed to Friends With Benefits, and the script was subjected to a major rewrite. (The final product is credited to Elizabeth Meriwether.) The result of this tortured journey from page to screen is a bet-hedging mess. No Strings wants to be raunchy enough to pull in the dude crowd and snuggly enough to draw couples on dates. Instead, it’s an inoffensive bore with occasional R-rated sex scenes that strain for cutesy shock value.
Doctor-in-training Emma (Natalie Portman) and TV production assistant Adam (Ashton Kutcher) have known each other vaguely since attending camp together in their teens. They meet again at a frat party in college, and she impetuously invites him to a “stupid thing” the next day that turns out to be her father’s funeral. Here’s where a sharper script might have stopped to investigate: Why did Emma invite a near-stranger to her dad’s funeral under false pretenses, then brusquely dismiss him afterward? Was she feigning indifference to the event, or did she really dislike her father? The film treats this potentially character-revealing setup as a standard meet-cute moment, squandering an opportunity to make us care.
Whatever Emma’s unspecified family problems are, they’ve turned her into a young woman who’s ambitious and briskly unromantic. When Adam comes back into her life years later, she proposes a “sex friends” setup whereby they can text each other for hookups anytime, but never date, snuggle, or have breakfast together. Adam is more of a snuggler, but on the advice of his standard-issue guy friends (Jake Johnson and Ludacris), he accepts Emma’s offer of nookie-on-demand.
A few awkward sex montages later, Adam wants to get serious, Emma freaks and withdraws, and the plot machinery cranks and creaks desperately in its attempts to keep the two apart long enough to constitute a movie. Since we never learn quite why Emma is so averse to coupling with this sweet, handsome, loyal guy, her resistance seems like a transparent narrative contrivance. Waiting for her to figure out that love is worth all the risks and complications isn’t a journey; it’s merely an experience of duration.
Adding to the apparent length of that duration is the lack of chemistry between the amiable, shambling Kutcher and the tightly wound Portman. But the bland-on-bland central coupling isn’t the most frustrating thing about No Strings Attached. Emma lives in a group house with other aspiring doctors, two of them played by Mindy Kaling and Greta Gerwig, both funny, attractive actresses practically begging for better jokes to tell. Kevin Kline plays Adam’s father, a narcissistic former sitcom star who takes up with his son’s vapid girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond). Kline graciously wrestles with some of the movie’s most painful dialogue: A scene in which he shares some fatherly advice on “eating kitty” inspired an audience-wide “ew.” There are too many talented people lurking around the edges of this movie, doing the comedic equivalent of manning a toll booth. I follow people on Twitter who write funnier lines than most of the ones in this script. And they’re working for free.