'No Strings,' No Purpose
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Late in "No Strings Attached" one of its principal characters announces, "I don't know why I wasted so much time pretending I didn't care." Maybe I've seen too many mediocre romantic comedies in my time, but my own response to that moment was, "Yeah, me, too." I mean, I try really hard not to drop spoilers in my film reviews, but let's be honest with each other: When you see the print ads for this movie, starring slick (some might even say unctuous) beefcake goofball Ashton Kutcher and Ostensibly Serious Young Female Thespian (and Oscar contender! And Golden Globe winner!) Natalie Portman, and you read the tagline, "Can Best Friends Be Sex Friends?" do you really think, "Wow, what an intriguing question. I like that premise. I think I'll check out that movie to find out how that works out"?
No. I don't think you do. I give you credit. I think that you, like pretty much every other sentient being in the continental United States and perhaps beyond, understand that this premise is really a setup for yet another these-two-wacky-kids-belong-together-and-they're-the-last-ones-to-know-it narrative.
The switch here, such as it is, is that Portman's character, a hardworking doctor, is the commitment-phobic, emotionally blocked one, while Kutcher gets to augment his built-in puppiness (look at those big brown eyes!) with large-hearted romantic yearning. See, because it's usually the guy who's hard-to-get like that! What's different here is that the talk is not dirtier per se, but consistently dirty in a sort of through line; everybody here needs his or her mouth washed out with soap. Also kind of new is the talent on display: Aside from the leads, and elder stalwarts such as Kevin Kline and Cary Elwes, the cast is studded with intriguing new talents culled from the indie and comedy worlds: Greta Gerwig, Olivia Thirlby, "Saturday Night Live"'s Abby Elliott. Some may consider their presences welcome; others might feel their talents are wasted.
"Strings" is a more traditional/conventional Hollywood product in its cumbersome construction -- it takes about 25 minutes for it to establish the whole "friends with benefits" dynamic for Portman and Kutcher's characters. Written by Elizabeth Meriwether and directed by old-school comedy money-earner Ivan Reitman, it's pretty bald-faced in its attempts to adopt some of the stylings of more au-courant comedy auteur Judd Apatow (random-seeming pop culture references, a wannabe-knowing attitude to such new "youth" phenomena as social media, and so on) but predictably stiff in that respect all the same.
One's attention, then, tends to wander. One begins to notice just how damn tiny Natalie Portman is. This woman is small. How small? So small she makes Gerwig, who really is not the most physically imposing woman around, look like Anna Nicole Smith. Or Abby Elliott look like Shirley Stoler. Really. She's so tiny, it's frightening. Another thing one winds up noticing is all the gyrations the camera and editing seem to go through in avoiding revealing any of the demure Ms. Portman's naughty bits. To the extent that when a character played by actress Lake Bell is depicted wearing a sort-of see-through bra, one thinks, "Hey! They're EXPLOITING that woman!" Again. Really.
And for all that, as Natalie Portman Talks Dirty movies go, the winner and still champion is 2004's "Closer." On the other hand, this IS one of Kutcher's better films, so there's that. And incidentally, for people on the aforementioned social media who've been asking just why supporting player Chris "Ludacris" Bridges continues to get acting work, be advised that he's pretty much the most consistently funny performer in the whole movie. Once again, really.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.