No Strings Attached is the blandest of romantic comedies and only attempts to give itself an edge through a half-assed attempt at raunchy humor and salty language. It sets up situational comedy that would feel stale in a 1980s sitcom and populates these unfunny scenarios with people who feel designed to serve the purpose of a bit rather than actual human beings who stumbled into a comedic situation. The only truly funny thing about No Strings Attached is how proud it is of its reversal of gender roles, which would be a feat worth applauding if the film had come out in the 1950s. Devoid of chemistry and humor, No Strings Attached is a romantic comedy that lacks both romance and comedy.
Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) are acquaintances who decide to start having sex with each other but without all the messy relationship stuff. Adam is a romantic, but he’s been wounded after his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond) starts dating his famous dad (Kevin Kline). Emma, on the other hand, is a cynic and finds the notion of emotional love to be illogical. However, she still enjoys sex and since she doesn’t have time or the inclination for a romantic relationship, she decides to become fuck-buddies with Adam. The notion of a woman who has no problem declaring her need for emotion-free sexuality and a man who is gigantic softy is a case of gender-reversal dynamics that will blow your mind provided you’ve been in a coma for the last half-century. You’ll also be surprised that Adam’s black friend (Chris Bridges) doesn’t have to drink from his own water fountain.
While Kutcher and Portman separately can be charismatic and likable, together they have no chemistry. The film assumes that we’ll care about Adam and Emma because they smile at each other a lot and so that means they’re falling in love. Their nothing about their relationship that’s special. Even though they’re trying to avoid a romantic entanglement, there doesn’t even seem to be a friendship that’s implied by the term “fuckbuddies”. They’re simply “fuck”. Sure, Adam will make a goofy gesture like creating a mix CD for Emma when she’s on her period, but they don’t share any inside jokes, mutual pet peeves, or anything that constitutes what most people would expect to see in a friendship.
That lack of understanding of how people interact with each other carries over to all of the relationships in the film. None of these actors feel like they enjoy each other’s companies and that the moment cameras stopped rolling, they stopped paying attention to each other. People say witticisms to each other, but these supposed friends don’t actually smile or react to when they hear a joke. And for a large cast filled with talented comic actors like Kline, Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, and others, everyone seems to be operating on their own. No one is trying to boost their fellow actor’s performance. Everyone seems bored with the material and it’s difficult to blame them. Bridges comes off best with his delivery and Lake Bell, who plays a coworker of Adam, seems like she has an authentic character before the film does overkill on her neurotic, motor-mouthed tendencies. It’s as if No Strings Attached discovered something real and had to snuff it out as quickly as possible in favor of the cheapest laughs possible.
And judging by the audience I saw the film with last night, it worked like gangbusters. All of the film’s best jokes are in the red-band trailer, but apparently this audience hadn’t seen it and they were absolutely on board with the few one-liners that worked and all of the ones that don’t. They were howling at a scene where Adam has to smuggle a small dog into a hospital by—wait for it—hiding it in his jacket! If you can grasp why this is hilarious, please keep it to yourself. I understand there’s a disconnect between the attitudes of critics and the average moviegoer, but I didn’t think it would come to the point where I was surrounded by people who were laughing at a joke that didn’t exist.
When critics dismiss the romantic-comedy genre, they’re talking about films like No Strings Attached. Not every film needs to challenge its viewer, but No Strings Attached barely bothers to show up. It coasts on its telegenic lead actors, but never takes advantage of their comic timing or bothers to see if they play well off each other. It offers the kind of comedy people could get if they tuned into watch Two and a Half Men but wanted the added benefit of paying money and leaving their home. I think that’s a bad offer, but sadly, I think I’m in the minority when it comes to that opinion.