Sunday, January 30, 2011

There's Always a Catch: NO STRINGS ATTACHED

It could just be the recent drought of good romantic comedies that is affecting my judgment, but I found No Strings Attached to be a surprisingly solid effort in the genre. It’s no great thing, and of course it falls back on cliché more often than it should, but the movie is stacked with a talented supporting cast and a likeable lead in Natalie Portman, all of whom are far too good to sleepwalk through what could otherwise have been a mediocre project. It’s not much, but its good enough.

It almost goes without saying that Natalie Portman is considerably more relaxed here than in Black Swan. She’s believable as an ambitious young professional who prefers one-night stands to commitment, believing relationships to be too complicated to mess with. This is the one small change screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether brings to the genre, making the woman the lead who is afraid to commit to the relationship and the man the dewy-eyed heart-on-the-sleeve romantic who really, really wants to settle down with the right person. It seems like that should be an awfully trivial change for a 2011 rom-com, hardly worth mentioning, except that it points out how awfully retrograde recent efforts have been, especially if they starred Katherine Heigl.

But now that I’ve brought up the flipped genre-dictated gender roles I may as well mention the actor’s name. He’s Ashton Kutcher, every bit as bland as ever. Kutcher and Portman play characters who briefly met as kids at summer camp, saw each other years later at a University of Michigan frat party, and then bump into each other after a few more years, discovering that they both currently live in Los Angeles. After quite a bit of set-up, the two of them decide to start a relationship but keep it purely physical. This is treated in the advertising as an edgy, sexy plot development, but in reality the movie plays out as if this is merely a brief stop on the road to true love and happy endings. Or rather, it’s just a minor complication in the route of boy gets girl, boy loses girl, and…I won’t spoil the ending, will I? It feels much safer and much more comfortably ensconced in genre convention in practice than it sounds in theory. The end, for better or worse, upholds all conventional romance norms.

Portman and Kutcher have some nice chemistry. Luckily, the movie proves that Kutcher isn’t necessarily an inherent source of irritation, especially when much better performers surround him. Per rom-com dictates, each lead gets a group of loveably goofy friends and family. In this case, these characters are a group of comedy ringers who attempt, and often succeed, in wringing humor from even the stupidest of punchlines. Kutcher gets a goofy semi-celebrity father (Kevin Kline), a dotty co-worker (Lake Bell), a ditzy ex (Ophelia Lovibond) and two drinking buddies (Jake Johnson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). Portman’s even better off in the funny friends department, rooming with The Office’s Mindy Kaling and indie darling Greta Gerwig, Between the three of them, Portman, Kaling, and Gerwig have such a wonderfully warm and amusing relationship I almost wished the movie could have dumped Kutcher and followed these ladies into far funnier places.

Anyways, the plot’s awfully conventional – it’s gears turn far too slowly in the third act – but its pleasantly charming cast is committed to their roles. The tone of the movie is not hard-R raunchy, but more of a barely-R sweetness. After early attempts with uneasy crudeness, it settles down nicely. The romance at the core is believable, the actors are likable, the score by John Debney is quiet and pleasant, and the time passes by rather smoothly under the slick, professional direction of Ivan Reitman. I had long thought that we had left him in the 80’s, back when he made comedy classic Ghostbusters. After all, his output since has been spotty to say the least with such forgotten flops like Six Days, Seven Nights and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. He had aged out of his window of relevance and couldn’t recapture what made his own work good. No Strings Attached is a nice surprise, though I hesitate to call it a return. It’s a simple, predictable effort, and not nearly as edgy as it thinks it is, but it finds a nice tone and plays to the strengths of its cast.

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