Sunday, May 22, 2011

"No Strings Attached" (2011)

Starring Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Kline
Written by Elizabeth Meriweather
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Rated R - Language, sex
Running Time: 110 Minutes

No Strings Attached (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)You'd never know it from watching those godawful "Star Wars" prequels, but Natalie Portman is a pretty great actress.  I remember seeing trailers for "No Strings Attached" and thinking that it didn't quite look like the sort of project that she would take on, but then I remembered that she'd previously done sci-fi epics, comic book anti-heroes, and even Luc Besson assassins.  So a raucous romantic comedy is pretty much in order, right?

Adam (Ashton Kutcher) is an assistant with aspirations of being a writer on a "Glee"-like TV show.  His father Alvin (Kevin Kline) is a former acting superstar, who happens to steal Adam's girlfriend Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond).  Distraught, Adam gets drunk and wakes up at the apartment of his friend Emma (Natalie Portman) the next day.  The two hook up, but Emma is clear that she's not interested in any kind of romantic relationship with Adam, although she's willing to engage in a kind of "friends with benefits" situation.  But, she says, they have to call it off the instant one of them starts to feel "anything more."

Things go well for a while, until it becomes obvious that Adam has developed real feelings for Emma.  Unfortunately, Emma doesn't respond well to this at all, even though she's clearly developed similar feelings for Adam.  After a series of fits and fights, Adam manages to convince Emma to go out on a real date with him.  What first starts out quite well ends in disaster when Adam confesses his love for Emma, and she freaks out and leaves.  Time passes, and Emma finds herself miserable and depressed.  Adam feels much the same way, though his career seems to take a turn for the better when he sells a script for an episode of his TV show to the producers.  Will these two manage to figure out how to get past Emma's fear of love and relationships?

"No Strings Attached" is sort of a strangely mediocre movie.  Directed by Ivan Reitman, who created some truly legendary comedies in the 1970s and 80s, much of it feels oddly flat and lifeless. While the script occasionally has some great lines and even mines some solid drama out of its characters, it seems to pull most of its punches, and the direction is so pedestrian and the pacing lackadaisical that it saps a lot of the energy out of the proceedings.  There are some pretty great lines spread throughout the thing, which the cast tries their best to deliver in a sort of sarcastic, matter-of-fact way, but it doesn't quite work..

Of the entire cast, only Natalie Portman is the one who seems to be having all the fun.  When Emma gets to be bossy or lash out at other characters, she's intense and commands the screen.  But Kutcher feels like a limp noodle next to her most of the time, occasionally showing some worth when he gets to flirt with Emma.  The rest of the cast, including Kevin Kline as Adam's asshole has-been father, Jake Johnson and Ludacris as Adam's friends, Mindy Kaling as Emma's roommate Shira, and a bit part for Cary Elwes as a doctor at Emma's hospital all have some funny moments, but nothing truly of note.

"No Strings Attached" is reasonably chuckle-worthy for much of its runtime, but it feels like a big misfire considering the talents of everyone involved.  Though Kutcher is rarely given much credit, I've never felt he was the talentless hack he's often made out to be.  He's obviously an actor of limited range, but I'm not sure what he was going for here.  The Adam character is mostly kind of an awkward loser, but is constantly being told that he's attractive and at one point implied to be a typical party-crazy frat boy.

So that leaves Portman to pretty much carry the entire movie, which she does.  She's sexy and smart and funny and obviously troubled when it comes to relationships and love.  She makes the most out of the character, though the script doesn't always take her in directions that feel the most natural.  It seems like the movie wants to try its hand at a couple different subplots for her, perhaps trying to throw in some alternatives to Adam for Emma to consider, but it never goes anywhere with either of those, so they simply feel like awkward distractions.  But Portman rolls with the punches, and gets several of the film's best laughs.

I was sadly disappointed with "No Strings Attached."  Limp direction and some messy scripting make it a pretty mediocre romantic comedy, though it has the makings of a much better one.  Natalie Portman is the one who makes the entire thing watchable, with a little help here and there from other cast members who seem to be trying their best but aren't getting the support they need from behind the camera.  It's too bad, really, since Reitman directed one of my favorite comedies ever: the Bill Murray classic "Ghostbusters."