When we saw the trailers for Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached, we all had the same basic reaction: “Oh, boy, Natalie Portman in a sex comedy!”, a thought that was immediately followed by: “Oh, no, Ashton Kutcher.” Yes, over the past decade, Kutcher has found more success as a “personality”, camera salesman, and a reality TV producer than he seems to have found as an actor: despite a few middle-of-the-road successes at the box office, his filmography has left film geeks cold. Would No Strings Attached be the first film that breaks away from that sad truth? Or would No Strings Attached be more Killers-level crap? Read on for our full review after the jump to find out, folks….
Let’s say you’re like millions of Americans, and you just don’t want to see Ashton Kutcher in your movies. It’s understandable.
Kutcher was reasonably good on FOX’s highly successful That 70’s Show (y’know, if you’re the type that enjoys sitcoms) and he enjoyed another lucrative run on MTV’s Punk’d, but in the years since those series came and went, he’s divided his time into three different ventures: producing (he does a fair amount of reality TV), being married to Demi Moore (which we can only assume is its own full-time job), and starring in films like Killers (which no one should ever be forced to see). Kutcher’s films– which also include Spread and Guess Who– have run the gamut from “moderately successful” to “not successful”, and so it would seem that Kutcher has had better luck with his TV work than in his film career.
While it’s true that Kutcher can be blamed– at least in part– for the horrific (and mercifully fleeting) popularity of “Trucker-style hats”, and while it’s also true that he does come off as a bit of a frat-boy d-bag in all those camera commercials he stars in, he does have a sort-of understandable likability to him, and it’d be disingenuous not to admit that he’s easy on the eyes (for ladies and discerning gentlemen). But as far as having an on-screen presence that’s genuinely compelling or entertaining, he has– for my money, anyway– fallen short time and time again. I simply don’t want to see movies with Ashton Kutcher in them.
For example: I simply refused to see No Strings Attached when it hit theaters, despite the fact that the trailers indicated that Natalie Portman would also be featured in the film in various states of undress. As far as I was concerned, “Natalie Portman” was cancelled out by “Ashton Kutcher”, and once you factored in the fact that No Strings Attached is– above all things– a romantic-comedy, there didn’t seem to be any reason for me to waste my time with the film. Chances were, I wouldn’t like it, and further chances were that I’d have my opinion of Natalie Portman somewhat tarnished. And no one wants to have their opinion of Natalie Portman tarnished. As such, I steered clear of the film until the Blu-ray arrived on my porch, and it took every ounce of willpower in my body to sit myself down on the couch to watch it unfold. I expected Yogi Bear levels of disaster.
So, imagine my surprise when I discovered No Strings Attached to be a slightly above-average, highly-likable, gleefully-raunchy-in-places rom-com (wow, that’s a whole bunch of dashes). No Strings Attached isn’t the best romantic comedy you’ll ever see, and it probably won’t convince you that Ashton Kutcher’s the best on-screen presence since Christoph Waltz, but it will make you laugh (infrequently, yes, but moreso than you might expect), and if you’re being suckered into a “chick flick” night with your lady-friend, there are far worse ways to spend your time (Killers, I name-drop you again).
In Strings, Adam (Kutcher) and Emma (Portman) meet-cute when they’re very young, in a prologue that takes place fifteen years before the movie begins in earnest. Even then, Emma’s withdrawn, unemotional, and not-too-thrilled with the idea of emotional connections. Adam, on the other hand, is almost relentlessly positive, sees the power in love, and seems destined to have some sort of relationship with Emma going forward: they reunite again ten years later at a college party, hook-up, and then don’t see one another again until the present. In that time, Adam has become an unpaid writer/producer-of-some-sort on a Glee-like TV show, while Emma has become a nurse/doctor-type (y’know: works insane hours in a hospital, lives with a crew of other med students, hangs out in places with a lot of sailboats).
After learning something disturbing (and hilarious) about his father, Adam goes on a drunken rampage that ends with him waking up the morning after in Emma’s apartment. The two begin a relationship based entirely upon using one another for sex, with the agreement being that neither will get emotionally attached. Adam seems convinced that it’s Emma who’ll break this rule first, but we already know that he’s the one that’s in trouble. For the most part, Strings deals with these two characters in a largely predictable– but still very entertaining– way. You know they’re gonna end up together, it’s just a matter of how it’ll happen and how many misunderstandings there’ll be along the way. Y’know: just like every other romantic comedy.
The film shines in its writing, which is uncommonly good for this sub-genre. It’s also surprisingly dirty in places, but never so much so that it becomes a “raunchy comedy”. Making the really dirty moments infrequent also guarantees that they’re going to pack more of a punch, and I really appreciated the way that screenwriter Elizabeth Meriweather handled this balancing act. There were a few lines that actually made me (and the person I watched the film with) belly-laugh, and that’s…surprising, all things considered. If you’d told me a week ago that I’d watch and kinda-sorta-pretty-much enjoy an Ashton Kutcher rom-com, I would have laughed just before spitting into your lying face. But there I sat, watching, kinda-laughing from time to time (the line that Ashton’s competition for Emma gets about “using big words around her” was particularly solid), not hating my existence as the Blu-ray spun through its course inside my PS3. No one’s more surprised about this than I am.
Let’s be clear, though: the film has its faults. There’s no small amount of predictability going on here (which has more to do with the genre itself than the script), there’s the required series of tedious events playing out only in service of keeping the two leads apart, and there’s an overall aura that I can only describe as “extremely white-people-ish”. But these things are outweighed by Reitman’s unusually sharp direction, Meriweather’s sometimes-hilarious script, and the charming work turned in by both Portman and Kutcher (the actors in smallers roles– the always-luminous Greta Gerwig, Jake Johnson, and Ludacris– also shine here).
So, what’s the bottom line here? Rent? Absolutely. Buy? Eh, let’s not get hysterical. The Blu-ray I received comes with a smattering of extras, none of which will make the film worth a purchase, but some of which might entertain your girlfriend if she really, really liked the movie. There’s a collection of deleted scenes (all of which were deleted with good reason), a commentary by director Ivan Reitman, a “Do’s and Don’ts” on Modern Love (because that’s what you need to be doing: taking relationship advice from an Ashton Kutcher Blu-ray), an “inside look” at the faux-Glee show that Adam works on in the film, something I refused to watch called “Sex Friends: Getting Together” (for those in the audience that don’t understand what a “booty call” is, apparently), and– according to the Blu-ray box– “More!”. There may have been a gag reel in there, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to watch another gag reel. Screw ‘em, they stopped being funny about three years ago.
If you don’t normally like romantic comedies, I’d still recommend No Strings Attached. It has just enough funniness to make it watchable, and just enough predictability to satiate fans of this genre. Absolutely rent this movie.
My grade? B+ (bordering on B-, depending on my mood)