With Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Cary Elwes, Lake Bell. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material. 110 minutes.
One of the first things a film critic has to learn is to set aside expectations and take the movies as they come. Of course, being human (really, most of us are) we have the tendency to go into a movie like NO STRINGS ATTACHED with trepidation. A sex comedy with Ashton Kutcher? Directed by Ivan Reitman? Might this combine the subtle acting of “Dude, Where’s My Car?” with the sensitive direction of “Evolution”? And what’s Natalie Portman, the leading Oscar contender for Best Actress for her incredible performance in “Black Swan” doing in a movie about “friends with benefits?” No, the critics trooping into the sneak preview of “No Strings Attached” were not happy campers.
Two hours later it was quite a different story. The movie turns out to be a funny, sexy film that doesn’t make you feel like the floor of a movie theater after a kiddie matinee. Kutcher is Adam, a low level flunky on a “Glee”-like TV show whose father (Kevin Kline) is one of the biggest names in TV sitcoms. Adam, though, wants to make it on his own.
Over the years, as we see in a rapid-fire prologue, he keeps running into Emma (Natalie Portman), with whom he develops a flirtatious relationship. Then comes the devastating discovery that his father’s latest bed partner is Adam’s ex-girlfriend. This makes him so angry and humiliated he wakes up from a long night’s drunk in the apartment of a bunch of young doctors, one of whom is Emma. Emma has her own issues and fear of commitment, and so she proposes to Adam that they have a “sex only” relationship. He doesn’t object.
What happens over the course of the film, though, is that feelings develop, and complications ensue, and things don’t turn out precisely as they planned. It’s to the credit of first-timer Elizabeth Meriwether’s screenplay that this doesn’t turn into one of those moronic films about how helpless an otherwise competent woman is without a boyfriend, nor do the laughs come primarily at her expense. Instead, we get a comedy of how two people seriously miscalculate their ability to put their feelings on hold.
Portman turns out to have a delightful flair for romantic comedy and she succeeds in doing for Kutcher what Drew Barrymore has done for Adam Sandler: she makes him look like a classy guy worth having. It’s not exaggerating to say this is probably Kutcher’s best screen acting to date. As his dad, Kline is all amiable and clueless charm, who is brazen precisely because he’s been getting away with it for so long. The supporting cast is solid, including Lake Bell as a TV writer who takes a shine to Adam and Jake Johnson as Adam’s best friend. Only Cary Elwes seems underutilized as a doctor Emma seems to have a crush on, appearing in a few scenes almost as if he’s visiting from another movie.
Surprisingly for a January release, “No Strings Attached” turns out to be the best romantic comedy in ages. Perhaps Hollywood hasn’t forgotten how to do these after all.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.