My final review for the year 2010 was of the much-better-than-anticipated LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS, a romantic comedy that rejects a lot of the conventions of that genre and that has a very interesting take on what can happen when two people decide to be "fuck buddies." As luck would have it, I'm starting the new year off with a supposedly similarly-themed film. Unfortunately, I can't share the same amount of excitement for NO STRINGS ATTACHED that I did for LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS. Then again, let's be honest - despite what the title and trailer are trying to tell you, NO STRINGS ATTACHED is not really a film about what it's like to be involved in a "friends with benefits" situation. During the film's first 20 minutes, Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) make an agreement to only be sex friends... immediately after that, we get a quick montage featuring snippets of them having sex in lots of locations (each others' houses, workplaces, etc)... and guess what comes after that. No, not more sex (you wish). What comes after that is everything you've seen a dozen times in other romantic comedies. The only difference here is that the guy who's trying to get the girl has already had sex with her. Does that make a big difference to you? It doesn't to me.
The interesting thing is, though, that despite the movie's descent into romcom cliches after the first 20 minutes, I should've easily been able to recommend NO STRINGS ATTACHED, because the two leads actually do have a decent amount of chemistry throughout the film's second act. The bigger problem with NO STRINGS ATTACHED is that it's half an hour too long. The final act is too drawn out, and the fact that most of it consists of the two main characters not sharing the screen together makes it worse. What makes the film lose even more credit here is the fact that there's a haphazard attempt to provide the male lead with another female love interest, which would be fine, except that the character that is selected to fulfill that role is one of those "annoyingly funny" characters who are usually amusing enough if they stay in the background and don't show up in that many scenes, but not if all of a sudden the film wants the character to acquire substantial importance (think Alison Pill's character in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD). This sudden attempt at giving Adam a new love interest feels rushed, and because of the character's personality, the scenes feel horribly awkward and misplaced. The final act of NO STRINGS ATTACHED becomes ruined to the point that it won't really matter how satisfying the "getting back together" scene between the two lovebirds is, because it won't make up for it.
Oh, and just to give you an idea of the "great" female supporting characters that are given to us in the film, let me tell you about Emma's friends. One of them wears a pair of panties with the word "WHORE" on the back side. Another one tells Emma "Hey, let's go out tonight. Remember, we're sluts!" (oh, and she's supposed to be a med school student). The even sadder thing about this is that a woman wrote the film's screenplay. It's kind of dispiriting to think that we're in the year 2011 and lines like these are still being spoken in movies. Will it only get worse?
Still, the film is far from being terrible. There's a particularly funny scene in which a character does a perfect rendition of Drew Barrymore (it's one of those moments in which you wish rewind buttons were available in movie theaters so you can rewatch a scene). But more importantly, the fact that Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman are able to exhibit a decent amount of chemistry during the film's middle section keeps the film at least above the level of mediocrity. Kutcher acts a little bit better than he has in his other films (if that means much to you), and as for Portman, I can't imagine this film will threaten her upcoming Oscar win. It's rumored that, back in 2007, Eddie Murphy lost his all-but-assured Oscar win for DREAMGIRLS because of the fact that NORBIT was released shortly before the Oscars. Rest assured, since NO STRINGS ATTACHED is far from being a terrible film and Portman's performance in BLACK SWAN is eminently Oscar-worthy, she won't suffer the same fate here. There's nothing special about her performance in NO STRINGS ATTACHED because she's not really asked to do much other than act initially hesitant and stoic and eventually lovestruck and desperate, but it's not a performance that'll taint her career either.
I imagine that "fuck buddies" have existed for a while now, so I'm not sure why there's a sudden string of movies about the subject. We got LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS, now NO STRINGS ATTACHED, and later this year, we'll get another similarly-themed film starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, which is very un-originally titled FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS (and yes, apparently, all films that are about that subject need to feature insanely attractive leads). As much as some romantic comedies can be good, what I think I'd really be interested in seeing is a more serious film that really explored how troubling it can be to walk the fine line between having "sex-only" interaction with someone while trying to avoid deeper feelings to surface. The main problem with NO STRINGS ATTACHED isn't just that it fails as a serious exploration of that dilemma, but that it fails as a comedic one as well, because it tosses the "friends with benefits" issue aside in its first 20 minutes, then moves straight into Romcom 101 material, and then finishes it off with an ill-conceived final act. Therefore, the situations that are meant to be funny turn out to be flimsy and overly familiar rather than fresh or insightful. But hey, if it's worth something, it's one of Ashton Kutcher's best films.