Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (2011)

15. No Strings Attached

2011 was the year when Hollywood apparently became aware of the phenomenon of people having on-going sexual relationships without committed romantic feelings. Though hardly a modern trend, “friends with benefits” (or “fuck buddies,” if you’re being crude) suddenly became a buzz word a few years back. This fascination would produce two comedies related to the topic, both being released in the same year. “No Strings Attached” came first, six months before “Friends With Benefits.” Both films manage to be box office hits, with the latter receiving slightly better reviews. “No Strings Attached” was also Ivan Reitman’s first movie in four years and the closest thing the director has had to a comeback in a while.

Emma and Adam first met when they were fourteen years old, when Emma let Adam – heartbroken from his parents’ divorce – finger him. Over the years, the two had a few encounters, at a college party, Emma’s father’s funeral, or out while with friends. The two meet again as young professionals, Adam working in the entertainment industry and Emma working as a nurse. Following a romantic humiliation, Adam seeks out Emma for casual sex. Soon, the two begin a “friends with benefit” arrangement, meeting for sexual encounters when it suits both of them. Despite agreeing that love would never enter the picture, the two inevitably begin to struggle with their feelings for each other.

“Knocked Up” was an important movie for Hollywood, and not just for popularizing the Apatowian man-child premise. That film also proved that you could dress up the tried-and-true romantic-comedy clichés in some raunch, attracting both male and female viewers. “No Strings Attached” does exactly this. Many of the rom-com stereotypes are included. After a light-hearted first hour, a dramatic contrivances pushes the two main characters apart. In this film, it’s a declaration of love, spoiling the titular agreement. In the end, a similarly sincere romantic gesture patches up the hurt hearts. One of the most obnoxious clichés in these types of movies are the leading man’s archenemies, usually a romantic rival for the female lead. In “No Strings Attached,” one of Natalie Portman’s male co-workers takes the time to belittle and insult Ashton Kutcher. The guy is acting like an asshole to a total stranger for no discernible reason. More insultingly, this character never appears again, making the scene a useless addition.

“No Strings Attached” is also a sex comedy. Unlike most examples of that genre, it does not approach the topic of human sexuality with snickers and childish gross-out antics. The sex scenes aren’t exactly realistic. There’s a lot of goofy, semi-naked clowning, including an especially embarrassing “playing doctor” scene or a moment devoted to Kutcher stumbling around in the nude. Despite that, “No Strings Attached” brings an unexpected intimacy to the topic. The love scenes focus on the faces and feelings of those involved as much as their entwining limbs. The sex scenes aren’t exploitative or sleazy but cute and playful. Considering most movies are content to put a cock on-screen and laugh at it, it’s sort of nice to see a comedy be about sex without making sex the central joke.

Ashton Kutcher is a debatable talent. Though he’s made a handful of stabs at respectable acting, Kutcher’s public image seems defined by his dunderhead character on “That ‘70s Show” and his hosting gig on mid-naughties relic “Punk’d.” (Or, worst, as Demi Moore’s boy toy.) In “No Strings Attached,” Kutcher does not expand too far from his established persona. He’s frequently goofy and laid back. The script has him, occasionally, playing light-hearted pranks on other characters. When the dramatic scenes come, Kutcher is not horribly convincing. As a playful comedic lead, he does all right but Ashton never seems confident in his dramatic abilities.

By 2011, Natalie Portman had garnered a reputation for starring in serious dramas like “Black Swan” and “Goya’s Ghost.” Despite having appeared in quite a few comedies, Reitman refused to let Portman improvise in “No Strings Attached.” However, the part allows her to embrace the playful silliness best displayed in previous films like “Garden State.” When leaping around drunkenly or jokingly bantering with Kutcher, Portman shows a great deal of charm. The film also allows Portman to embrace her reputation as a sex symbol. Spending large parts of the movie in various states of undress, Portman happily embraces her sexy side, much to the enjoyment of the audience. As route as the script can be, Portman tearing up during the movie’s serious scenes are effective, if only because of her strengths as a performer.

Probably the biggest benefit towards “No Strings Attached” is that Kutcher and Portman make a pretty damn cute couple. The first time they have sex, the camera focuses on their faces as they position their bodies. There’s an obvious chemistry between them. When the two are cuddling fully clothed or Portman is leaping onto Kutcher’s back, you buy that they have feelings for one another. It makes the inevitable break-up at the start of the third act difficult to believe. Why don’t they just start dating, if the attraction between them is so obvious? This is frustrating for the viewer, that the movie hews so closely to formula. A less conventional script could have built off Portman and Kutcher’s chemistry.

Even with a solid two leads and a better than average script, this is still a late period Ivan Reitman movie. Which means “No Strings Attached” features its share of jokes that fail to land. The biggest miscalculation in the film concerns Adam’s dad, Alvin. A washed-up sitcom start, famous for his catchphrase “Great Scott!,” Alvin spends his middle age in a state of arrested development. He hangs out by a pool in a speedo and smokes weed. A late film flirtation with Purple Drank puts him in the hospital. What pisses Adam off so much is that his girlfriend, who is his own age, leaves him for Alvin. (This reveal causes Adam to punch his own father in the gut.) Kevin Kline plays Alvin. Despite being an actor of considerable charm, Kline plays Alvin as a broad, obnoxious cartoon character. I’m not blaming Kline. Instead, I think the script is to blame, crafting a ridiculous character at odds with the rest of the film.

Kline isn’t the only recognizable name in the supporting cast. Adam’s best friends are played by Jake Johnson and an incredibly sedate Ludacris. Johnson is mildly amusing, while crowing about his two gay dads, but Ludacris comes off as very sleepy. Mindy Kaling, Greta Gerwig, and Guy Branum play Emma’s roommates. I’m not sure why talented performers like Kaling and Gerwig would appear in bit parts in a film like this, though Kaling gets a laugh or two. Lake Bell is another charming, notable presence thrown into a small role, this time as Kutcher’s other potential love interest. Cary Elwes shows up for a glorified cameo as a doctor Emma seems mildly attracted to. His almost unrecognizable under a scraggly beard and contributes almost nothing to the story.

Another unfortunate reoccurring element in Reitman’s later comedies has been some reductive sexual politics. “No Strings Attached” is nowhere near as gross as “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” in this regard. However, Adam’s two male friends still speak in needlessly crude dialogue and refer to women in an aggravatingly bro-ish manner. Perhaps in an effort to appear progressive, the film makes the male lead the emotional one and the female lead the one more interested in sex. Kutcher openly attempts to push the sexual relationship towards a romantic one while Portman only wants to knock boots. But consider this. Portman is who ends up breaking down first, realizing she loves Kutcher. Ultimately, the movie portrays her initial coldness as simply a defense mechanism against the inevitable romance. I’m not one to get hung up on a movie’s politics but I couldn’t help and notice these things.

Like I said, “No Strings Attached” really is a traditional rom-com. I’ve talked plenty about the romantic aspects so what about the comedy? Not satisfied with letting the sexy sex earn the movie an R-rating, the film has to throw in some crude humor. During a montage, we see some of Adam and Emma’s more ribald adventures. Such as her looking at his dick with 3-D glasses, apparently Portman’s sole moment of improvisation. Early scenes devoted to fingering or a pajama party – that’s actually an excuse to dress in skimpy clothing – establishes a crass tone. The “High School Musical”-style show that Adam works as a P.A. on features a male star that has a bad habit of taking pictures of his dick with his cellphone. An especially cringe-worthy gag involves Adam burning Emma a CD comprised of menstruation themed songs. Not many of these jokes get laughs and I’m not sure why they’re in the movie.

Like most of Reitman’s movies, “No Strings Attached” features some on-the-nose musical cues. Time frames are established with obvious song choices like “I Wanna Sex You Up” or “Shake Your Tail Feathers.” A fuckin’ montage is set to Elvis Presley’s “Bossa Nova Baby,” which at least contributes some energy to the sequence. A dance scene features a bizarre acoustic cover of “99 Problems,” which popped up in a few movies around the same time. The Plain White T’s “Rhythm of Love” plays over the end credits, a style of pop-rock I have no tolerance for. John Debney’s score is not especially memorable but is better than it has to be.

For everything entertaining about “No Strings Attached,” there’s another element making me dislike it. Portman and Kutcher’s chemistry, a frank treatment of sexuality, and a relatively likable tone makes the film seem better than it actually is. An otherwise routine script, which bends in some typically unlikable directions, and some off-putting jokes hold the audience back from liking the movie more. Still, considering how disagreeable Reitman’s last two movies were, even a relatively mediocrity like “No Strings Attached” seems better in comparison. [Grade: C+]

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