No Strings Attached: movie review

‘No Strings Attached’ takes up the old question of when does playing around slip into love.

Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher maintain a wavering relationship in ‘No Strings Attached.’

Going in for a double dose of angst this season, Natalie Portman turns from "Black Swan" to play Emma, a young doctor in "No Strings Attached" who scampers away from emotional attachments. Her prime attachee is Ashton Kutcher's Adam, an aspiring TV writer and the son of a famous blowhard sitcom star played by Kevin Kline.

The stereotypical gender role reversal here is the gimmick. Emma is the one who just wants a sexual relationship without any emotional overload while Adam, who plays along with the setup, inevitably falls for her. Why he does so is something of a mystery, since Emma, while undeniably smart and pretty, is also undeniably abrasive. Since Adam doesn't seem like the masochistic type, his puppyish, sweet-souled love for her registers as more of a plot convenience than a plausibility.

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No doubt there is a vast young audience out there clamoring to know the answer to the film's conundrum about whether friends can have sex and still be friends. The answer provided here – one of many reasons why this film is not as "daring" as it pretends – is a resounding "no." (This is no junior-division "Last Tango in Paris.") That answer will likely make the film a big date-night smash, although these days who knows what qualifies as a date movie? I thought "Black Swan" would be the worst date movie since "Saw 3D" but I was wrong.

Director Ivan Reitman and screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether start things out with a peppy, off-color spiritedness, and the early scenes between Emma and Adam, when they groggily, then avidly hook up, are sharp. It's when the movie lurches into seriousness, when Adam realizes he wants more than serial hookups and Emma can't figure out what she wants, that the movie regresses into a standard sudser. The film isn't helped by Kline's cameo, although his comic timing is impeccable. The problem is that what he's timing – the role of an aging ego-swelled roué – is very tired stuff.

Kutcher is charming enough. He's not exactly stretching, which is probably just as well. Portman looks at times as perplexed as we do about what she is supposed to be playing. Emma's avoidance of emotional ties is given no psychological underpinnings beyond a few flip Freudianisms. But at least Portman is playing someone who is recognizably human, unlike her dancer in "Black Swan," where she was a projection of the director's pop-schlock fantasies done up in a high-art tutu. The sexual pas de deux in "No Strings Attached" are a lot more down to earth. Grade: B- (Rated R for sexual content, language, and some drug material.)


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