Ivan Reitman’s career began with exuberant and vivacious celebrations of a male juvenilia that followed his characters humorously deep into what should have been adulthood. Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters, along with searing the imprint of Bill Murray’s id into popular culture, were broad precursors to the extended adolescence of Judd Apatow and his imitators. Of course, the success of those films pushed Reitman into long period of middle-of-the-road family comedies, with wildly varying success. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see him taking on a story that involves actual grown-ups, even if it is, ultimately, a failure.
Ashton Kutcher’s Adam and Natalie Portman’s Emma may not have settled down in the traditional marriage-and-kids way by the time we catch up with them at the end of their 20s but they have jobs they take seriously, their Ozomatli posters have frames on them and they spend their weekend perusing the farmers’ market. In fact, the one character who does refuse to grow up – Adam’s dad, played by Kevin Kline as if he’s doing Reitman a favor – is not a lovable scamp but a cautionary tale, a concrete and pitiful example of what Adam should absolutely try to avoid becoming.
No Strings Attached uses its R rating well, largely sidestepping crudeness in favor of the frank and unembarrassed way actual adults would talk about cunnilingus and menstruation (and a few things that have nothing to do with vaginas as well). Some of the best comedy in the movie comes from the unadorned performances of Greenberg‘s Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling (“The Office”) as Emma’s friends. They, along Lake Bell (“Children’s Hospital”), in a winning performance, make up a trio of real, hilarious women that I would much rather watch a movie about than the one I got.
Sadly, apart from the elements outlined above, the rest of No Strings Attached consists of a bunch of cliches jostling uncomfortably against each other like a sack full of stray kittens. Portman’s Emma is one of those women who’s so driven and career-focused that she’s terrible at relationships. In movies like this one, such women just need the scales to fall from their eyes. Their control and trust issues are only skin deep and can be shattered provided she meets a guy attractive, charming and persistent enough.
Kutcher’s Adam is that guy and that’s about all he is. Faced with the example of his father, he wants very much to be a good person. Which is lucky for him because he is. Problem solved! His friends are played by Jake Johnson and Ludacris, though it may not be correct to say Ludacris plays a character who is barely there and speaks only in one-liners that seem to have come out of a handbook. Johnson is provided with only slightly better opportunities but still has to be the horny roommate who does mushrooms and masturbates a lot.
Speaking of the roommate situation, perhaps the most exasperatingly worn-out cliché of the characters who seem to live in homes far out of their price range or the price ranges of almost everyone I’ve ever met. I’ll allow Emma her apartment because, nice as it is, she does share it with three other people. Adam, on the other hand, lives in a house in the hills with his one roommate. Any chance of this being attributed to his rich father is dashed by his proudly insisting that he paid for his own car. Apparently, this lovely home is the reward for fiscal independence, even on the salary of a television writer’s assistant.
The final nail in the coffin is the film’s use of location. This is a spotless and up-to-date version of Los Angeles that would be recognizable only to those who can not only afford to live on the West side of Los Angeles but also have maids and assistants and therefore never have to venture beyond its borders. Certainly, that is not a tax bracket that includes industry bottom-rungers and medical students.
No Strings Attached is a better film than its premise and release date would suggest, but there is a point at which most everyone involved seems to have decided to coast the rest of the way on what they already had and what they already knew.