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Having recently endured starvation and battered toes in the service of her art, Natalie Portman now encounters another of the ordeals laid out for ambitious young actresses who want to be movie stars. Less than a week after gracing the Golden Globes broadcast in a rose-bedecked gown and collecting an award for her work in “Black Swan,” Ms. Portman pops up on Friday on the big screen in a pre-Valentine’s Day romantic comedy with an instantly forgettable title.
Let me check my notes. The name of this one is “No Strings Attached,” and it also stars Ashton Kutcher, a perfectly nice-looking fellow and an old hand at this kind of thing. His character, a television writer named Adam, is described as “sooo tall” and “almost annoyingly happy,” which pretty much captures Mr. Kutcher’s salient traits.
Portman can now claim what appears to be a unique distinction: She may be the only Golden Globe-winning actress to simulate sex on screen with two former members of the cast of “That ’70s Show
Ms. Portman, playing Emma, a Los Angeles doctor who works emergency room rotations, is quite a bit smaller and more emotionally complicated. What are these two doing together? A possible solution to the mystery emerges if you recall a particular scene involving Mila Kunis in “Black Swan.” Ms. ”
While the full import of that astonishing fact sinks in, let me say that “No Strings Attached,” directed by Ivan Reitman from a script by Elizabeth Meriwether, is not entirely terrible. That is high praise indeed, given that this is a film aspiring to match the achievement look at here of “27 Dresses,” “When in Rome” and “Leap Year.”
The first scenes flail in the direction of various coarse comic subgenres, as we see an icky, awkward summer camp encounter, followed by a frat-house blowout in which we catch sight of Greta Gerwig drunk and wearing shorts with the word “whore” emblazoned across the back. Then there is a funeral, some family awkwardness and a drunken evening that leads to morning-after sex in the wake of a one-night stand that did not happen. It’s not really as confusing as it all sounds, but it is hard to escape the feeling that Mr. Reitman shot six or seven movies and then went into the editing room blindfolded to splice them all together.
Like Anne Hathaway’s character in that movie, Ms. Portman’s is the one who insists on keeping things casual, physical and commitment-free. The arrangement that Adam and Emma agree upon is that they will have as much sex as they want – and Mr. Reitman’s way with montage suggests that it’s a lot – without the emotional entanglements that everyone watching knows are inevitable and that they both want. Emma’s resistance seems particularly unmotivated. She obviously likes Adam but refuses to fall for him, as if adhering to a deeply held conviction or trying to win a bet.
The pleasures of “No Strings Attached” are to be found in the brisk, easy humor of some of Ms. Meriwether’s dialogue and in the talented people scattered around Ms. Portman and Mr. Kutcher like fresh herbs strewn on a serving of overcooked fish. Kevin Kline, who played a goatish older literary gent in “Definitely, using as Adam’s father, a louche former sitcom star who takes up with his son’s ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond).
Mr. Kline has some room to work, but too many other actors are crowded into too few scenes. Chris Bridges (a k a Ludacris), as the owner of Adam’s favorite bar, could surely do more, and so could Olivia Thirlby as Emma’s radiantly monogamous younger sister. Lake Bell, as a smitten co-worker of Adam’s, is funny even as her character is set up from the start to be hurt and humiliated, a fate the film tries unconvincingly to soften.
Adam and Emma have the requisite nutty friends, though Adam’s best pal, Eli (Jake Johnson), is much blander than the crude dude you would expect to find in his position. The film’s great squandered opportunity – and also the source of some of its best comic moments – is that Ms. Gerwig and Mindy Kaling in effect share the role of Emma’s zany sidekick.
Actually, it is rougher and randier than those movies, earning its R rating with a lot of naughty talk and a dose of semi-cynical sexual candor
How can this be? Why are these two entirely original and of-the-moment performers marginal players in this agreeable, lackluster picture and not stars of the year’s greatest girl-bromance? (Or whatever you’d call it; that no apt label exists is surely symptomatic.) To imagine Ms. Kaling and Ms. Gerwig in a remake of “Thelma and Louise” or “The Wedding Crashers” is to experience an equal measure of frustration and hope. Why can’t we have a few movies like that and not quite so many like this?
Directed by Ivan Reitman; written by Elizabeth Meriwether, based on a story by Mike Samonek and Ms. Meriwether; director of photography, Rogier Stoffers; edited by Dana E. Glauberman; music by John Debney; production design by Ida Random; costumes by Julie Weiss; produced by Mr. Reitman, Joe Medjuck and Jeffrey Clifford; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
WITH: Natalie Portman (Emma), Ashton Kutcher (Adam), Cary Elwes (Dr. Metzner), Kevin Kline (Alvin), Greta Gerwig (Patrice), Lake Bell (Lucy), Olivia Thirlby (Katie), Chris Bridges a k a Ludacris (Wallace), Jake Johnson (Eli), Mindy Kaling (Shira) and Ophelia Lovibond (Vanessa).