2010 was a pretty rough year for romantic comedies. Seems like we got bombarded again from Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore and twice from Katherine Heigl. Well it’s 2011 , maybe the old rom-com can spring back to life with an injection of some fresh blood. Perhaps a vet of classic screen comedies, Ivan Reitman, can give the genre a new spin. And how about a different rom- com leading lady, somebody best known for dramas and big sci-fi actioners? Why it’s current critical darling Natalie Portman. The result of adding these two into the mix with rom-com staple Ashton Kutcher is NO STRINGS ATTACHED.
A cute flashback sequence ( 15 years ago ) opens up the film as twelve year old Adam and Emma meet at summer camp. The characters are set up quickly as brainy Emma rebuffs Adam’s crude advances ( EEyyooouuww! ). Ten years later they meet again at a college frat pajama party thanks to their pals Patrice ( Greta Gerwig ) and Eli ( Jake Johnson ). After some flirting Emma ( Portman ) asks Adam ( Kutcher ) if he’ll accompany her to some “stupid thing” the next day. Turns out it’s her Dad’s funeral ( !! ) and Adam stands out amongst the mourners in his bright yellow Michigan hoodie. Afterwards he asks for another date and is rebuffed again. Cut to a year ago- Eli ( with Adam and his girlfriend Vanessa ) spots Patrice and Emma at an outdoor fair. Emma gives Adam her number while the others chat away. And now we cut again to the present day- Adam is a production assistant on a Glee/ High School Musical-type TV show. Still nursing his wounds after being dumped by Vanessa, he goes to visit his father, a former sitcom TV star played by Kevin Kline. There he discovers that his father has shacked up with Vanessa! Furious, he storms off, grabs his roomie Eli, and begins a drinking binge at their pal Wallace’s ( Chris Bridges AKA Ludacris ) bar. After many failed attempts he passes out..and the next morning wakes up on the living room couch of Patrice, Emma, and their housemates/ hospital co-workers Guy and Shira. While retrieving his pants from her bedroom, Adam and Emma enjoy a brief romp between the sheets. No dating, no relationship, just sex. Adam happily agrees, but can they really remain just friends with really great benefits?
So yes, we’re dealing with the idea of friends with benefits ( except that title had already been registered to an upcoming film with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis ) or f*** buddies ( which the MPAA would never allow ). Now this theme of a couple falling in love after casual sex was dealt with way back in 1986 with ABOUT LAST NIGHT starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore ( mmmm, interesting ), but a new element has been added with the recent rom-com archetype-the non committal woman, as portrayed by Zooey Deschanel in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. This tends to align audience sympathies with the male hero while the female lead comes off as cold and unreasonable. Unfortunately the script uses the old cliche of the big wedding ( Emma’s kid sister ) to melt her icy heart.
As she leaves for work, Emma proposes that they be on call for each other whenever either is in need of sex
The script, besides the rom-com staples, wallows in tasteless exchanges about father and son sharing the same woman and the lady housemates’ monthly cycle syncing up ( nice guy Adam makes a ‘period’ mix CD for her ). Yuuuchh! Reitman tries to keep things moving along until the un-surprising conclusion. He’s got the comedy expertise to know to surround the leads with some good comic support. The very talented Mindy Kaling of TV’s The Office scores some big laughs as Emma’s pal Shira. Two current SNLers are on hand: Nasim Pedrad ( unfortunately seen and not heard as a writer on Adam’s TV show ) and Abby Elliott as the sympathetic bar server Joy who kills with her spot-on Drew Barrynore impression.
Gerwig ( GREENBERG ) and Johnson ( PAPER HEART ) do all they can as the best pals who show how a real relationship blossoms
Bridges is very funny as the sullen, macho bar owner. Lake Bell show off her zany comic chops ( previously seen on TV’s Children’s Hospital) as Adam’s clumsy co-worker. Oliva Thirlby ( so wonderful as Juno’s best gal pal) has little to do as Emma’s kid sis besides giving her a pep talk on her wedding eve. I’m conflicted over Kevin Kline in the film. He scores laughs with every line ( his character’s old sitcom tagline-Great Scott! I miss seeing him as the lead in great comedies like IN AND OUT and DAVE. His considerable talents are squandered in a cartoon oaf like Alvin. As for the leads, Kutcher is playing the sweet, simple minded, handsome goof he’s been playing since That 70’s Show into other recent features.
Portman has the more difficult role. You can see her character fighting the desire to open up to Adam. Many entertainment reporters have speculated that her role in this comedy may derail her Oscar chances pointing to Eddie Murphy ( who GIRLS Oscar when NORBIT was released after ballots went out ). There are a few embarrassing scenes in here-getting sloshed at a Christmas party, too many miniature golf victory yells, driving while binging on donut holes-but nothing that should sway Academy members. Thanks to a strong comedy director and a great supporting cast NO STRINGS ATTACHED is a bit better than last year’s rom-com crop. Let’s hope that 2011 brings us much better entries in this much maligned genre.