Of course there are strings attached in Ivan Reitman's new romantic comedy, "No Strings Attached," starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher as best sex buddies. With a role-reversing twist -- it's the girl avoiding commitment and the guy hoping for love -- the film had possibilities. Sadly, an obsession with raunchy one-liners trips everything up, turning a clever conceit into something closer to a sleazy, cheesy affair.
Though the bad jokes are a lot of what sours the film, I'm not laying blame solely at the feet of screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether, because the result reeks of intervention. Tampering perhaps by studio suits worried that the movie's strong female/sentimental male might not bring in bubbas without pumping it full of racier stuff; or worse, a veteran director (that would be "Ghostbusting" Reitman) trying to prove he can still hang with the cool kids. (Since Reitman has said he was inspired to return to directing by son Jason's smart relationship comedy "Up in the Air," he should take a few lessons from the kid on classing-up a project).
Now raunch, properly used, isn't a problem per se. But creating and cultivating rich crude is an art form, one typically achieved by the perfect melding of off-color riffs and internal logic. That doesn't happen in "No Strings," where the bits sound like they were cribbed from bathroom stall scribes and the dialogue doesn't wear well on characters who seem to actually have some soul and substance.
The stage is set 15 years in the past during a summer-camp encounter between the gawky teens who will grow up to be Emma (Portman) and Adam (Kutcher). They meet funny-sweet: He's been shipped to camp because his folks are divorcing; she's sympathetic. But things go south with Adam's crass attempt to bust a move. Suffice it to say, if this were football rather than flirting, the penalty flags would be flying.
After a brief hi-bye a few years later at a college frat party and an afternoon date that turns out to be her father's funeral , the film settles into present day, where Emma and Adam again bump into each other, this time at an L.A. farmers market. In the intervening years, they have become adults with careers, surrounded by the requisite clique of funny friends and dealing with -- how else to put this? -- unmet needs. Girlfriend woes and a drinking binge eventually land Adam in Emma's bed, where a deal is struck: sex without entanglements. Like that ever works.
The arena is upscale and full of type-A yuppies. Portman's Emma is a medical resident -- brainy, beautiful, busy -- and yet somehow able to squeeze in a quickie every few scenes. The actress does her best, giving Emma warmth and sass, which suggests that with the right material Portman's seriously funny side might surprise you. The sex, most of which she initiates, is quite athletic and energetic, but this will not be the performance that Portman is remembered for (though it does make for some interesting coupling comparisons coming as it does amid the Oscar push for "Black Swan").
Kutcher has no such comparative worries. His Adam is a TV show assistant with a famous father (Kevin Klein as a popular former sitcom star, churning through a series of trophy wives, in sort of a Kelsey Grammer impersonation). Adam is pretty much a carbon copy of the goofball charmer Kutcher's been playing since "That '70s Show" hit Fox in 1998, which is sweet on the surface, just not very deep.
Reitman struck gold in the '80s with "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes," but it's been a long time since he's found magic in the director's chair (which is different from money). Still, he has done this gig enough times to ensure a certain polish that keeps things moving along and looking good, and he's helped by an experienced team that includes cinematographer Rogier Stoffers, production designer Ida Random, costume designer Julie Weiss and editor Dana Glauberman.
There are moments of redemption -- when Emma and Adam try to get a handle on what a real relationship might require, "No Strings Attached" gets better. Ultimately, the film poses an intriguing question: Can great sex lead to true love? It's just by the time they get around to answering it, you probably won't care.
'No Strings Attached'
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, language and some drug material
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: In general release