Disjointedly tasteless with moments of awesomeness.
Starring Ashton Kutcher, Natalie Portman, Kevin Kline, Ludacris and Lake Bell. Directed by Ivan Reitman
It’s theorized that in Hollywood there is a machine. It lives, breathes, and exists below the streets of Los Angeles much like the purported ones that record all of our phone conversations exists somewhere beneath the windswept plains of Nebraska. Studio Execs keep this machine secret, looking behind their backs as they take the Metro to a clandestine tunnel located directed under Century City to another rail line that transports them to the room where this machine is kept. Remember the security measures for the impregnable room in the first “Mission: Impossible?” It’s more difficult than that to get into. Once inside the room an Exec walks over to the machine and feeds in the names of five actors and actresses that weren’t doing anything for lunch that day. Within moments, a script is produced with pitch-perfect accuracy for getting a “green light” for production.
This is how movies like “No Strings Attached” are made. But let’s run over the story:
Emma and Adam meet fifteen years ago at a summer camp. Adam’s parents are going through a divorce and he finds solace in talking with Emma about it. When he tries not-so-subtly to make a move she declines it.
Fast-forward to five years ago. Emma (now Portman) and Adam (now Kutcher) meet at a frat party where they run into each other again. Adam is nearly wasted but accepts Emma’s invite to a little “get together” the next day. She fails to mention to him that she’s taking him to her father’s funeral. Nice, huh? Afterward she tells him that if she ever runs into him again that it’ll be the worst thing in his life.
And we time jump, yet again, to one year ago. Adam and his friend Eli (Jake Johnson) are hanging out in the park. Emma runs into Adam and they begin talking when he introduces her to his current girlfriend Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibund). They part ways and Emma gazes at Adam with the “one that got away” look.
And now we’re at “now.” Emma is a nurse at an L.A. hospital. She lives with other medical interns Patrice (Greta Gerwig), Shira (Mindy Kaling), and another guy (Shaun Russell). Patrice is “supportive friend” roommate, Shira is the “studious”/ not having sex roommate, and the other guy is gay. Emma works with the handsome and stable doctor Sam (Ben Lawson). Swing-shifts and odd hours at the hospital are her life.
Adam works on a high school television show that’s a lot like ‘Glee’ in some respects. He dreams of being a writer but doesn’t know how to submit the script. Lucy (Bell) is an assistant who works with him who is head-over-heels attracted to him in her own awkward way. Adam lives in the shadow of his 70’s sitcom dad Alvin (Kline) whose hit “Great Scott” is revered by all. When we see Alvin for the first time he takes a few hits off a joint before passing it to his son and trying to inform him that he’s now sleeping with his son’s ex, Vanessa. Adam storms off and goes to hang out with his friends Eli and Wallace (Ludacris).
While at the bar he drunk dials everyone in his cellphone before passing out. When he awakes he’s stark naked in Emma’s apartment surrounded by the roommates and her. He makes it back to her room where they do the Plot Point: they become friends with benefits.
Only, is it REALLY what either want?
The rest of the film is about two people trying to do everything not to be in love. Rather, it’s Emma trying to do everything not to be in love. They “do it” anywhere and everywhere from their own bedrooms to various places in the hospital. It’s fun. It’s great. Problem occurs when Adam begins falling for Emma and wants a real chance with her while she doesn’t want a relationship. Or does she? And so it goes on so forth and et cetera.
What works for this film? There are laugh-out-loud moments that are worth it. Reitman, having crafted some of the notably best comedies of the Eighties, mixes a somewhat adult demeanor and its sensibilities with MTV shock-value and delivers a middle-of-the-road movie that’s not too bad. Kevin Kline is great as Kutcher’s 70’s sitcom father living off royalties and a tagline (“Great Scott!”) and plays well against type by pot smoking and having relationships with his son’s former girlfriends.
Unfortunately what doesn’t work is the rest of it. Ashton Kutcher is Hollywood’s cinematic “boy toy”: if he’s not in movies about having sex with multiple women then he’s pursuing a relationship. This is his “range.” Meanwhile, he’s acting against Natalie Portman who has played everything from a twelve-year-old girl training to be a hitman to a Star Wars princess to a stripper to… she’s been just about everything. Her problem in this film isn’t so much an issue of typecasting as she looks uncomfortable playing the part of Emma as if she doesn’t believe what she’s saying. Or maybe she wasn’t thrilled to be acting against Kutcher.
I saw this with a group of people and the consensus was: it was better than we thought it would be and it felt like the script was pieced together like a group of guys sitting in a room all had to come up with one scene a piece. That’s what it felt like watching it; some things served “effect” more than story. Other than that some cited it as a pretty good rom-com.
My question is: where has Ivan Reitman been? The guy who gave us some of Bill Murray’s best moments, who has directed such fare as “Meatballs,” “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Kindergarten Cop,” where has he been? His last movie was “My Super Ex-Girlfriend,” and before that “Evolution.” He’s averaging a movie every five years and while I liked “Evolution” I didn’t bother with “Super Ex.” “No Strings Attached” was good, not great, and who knows what he’ll direct five years from now. His son Jason has done pretty well with “Juno,” “Thank You for Smoking,” and “Up in the Air.” Maybe it’s just a paycheck…
The title itself is more provocative an idea than the movie. “NSA” is a darker, simpler side of sex-based relationships. While we were given a montage of this it became much more apparent that is was more about Adam falling in love with a woman who didn’t want to reciprocate that (Emma). The concept is more befitting Woody Allen or someone else who deals with the candor of relationships than Reitman; this is an argument on the style of the substance at hand.
Should you see this movie? It’s more of a matinee/date movie at best. Don’t pay full price. Rental is alright, too. There are some seriously laugh-out-loud moments but there’s also a spot in the movie where everything goes SERIOUS and then, it drags.
Watch for Cary Elwes as Dr. Metner and Reitman himself as a TV director.
My grade: C+/B-