It must feel terrible to be No Strings Attached, a film that walks the fine line between mediocre and a generally pleasurable experience. A few inches left and director Ivan Reitman could have made an edgy movie about friends with benefits. A few inches right and No Strings Attached could have been a nice rom-com. Between inappropriate period jokes, Nemo impressions, and carrot flower bouquets, the film never really figures out what it is or where it is going. Is it a date movie? Fuck no. Is it a balls-to-the-wall comedy? Bill Hicks is rolling over in his grave. To be fair, occasionally there are some moments of glorious spontaneity we will happily watch, but, all in all, No Strings Attached seems pretty content to ride the fail boat.
Marketed as a fuck-buddy-falls-hard film, No Strings Attached only doubles as a story about a sex-oriented relationship. Instead, we find ourselves in the middle of a story about a boy. Adam (Ashton Kutcher) is an oft goofy, but sometimes endearing young man who has spent the last several years working on the set of a television production, hoping against all hopes he will get a writing break. Somewhat admirably, he refuses to take a bone from his dad, Alvin (Kevin Kline), a famous television actor. Unfortunately, Alvin’s fame has a habit of messing with his son’s life, as is the case when Alvin whisks Adam’s recent lover, Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond), right out from under his nose. Adam isn’t dealing with this well. In the aftermath ensuing, two things happen for him: he manages to write a script for the show that is good enough to produce and he meets Emma (Natalie Portman), a dreamy doctor whose isolating ideas have caused her to avoid relationships.
Of course, Emma convinces herself she can’t be with Adam, though she would like to sleep with him—regularly, and sometimes in bizarre locations. With this going for the plotline, we could have gotten an enriching movie about people complicating their lives. Instead the sexual factor turns sour and in part 2, a strange sort of love story unfolds. It is in part 2 that Emma begins to be a caricature of her former self. She’s hiding in the bushes and then stuffing donuts down her blowhole. It’s not Portman’s fault. We’re supposed to root for Adam, care about Adam, but that affection doesn’t make it is any less difficult as we watch Portman play with the putty-for-attitude she’s been given.
Not that No Strings Attached is attempting to be cut and dry. Occasionally a joke will hail all the way from left field to endear those of us watching at home. Case in point: Adam sleeps with Emma for the first time. The next day he brings her a balloon, to congratulate her on sleeping with him. Funny, right? Wrong. Within three minutes of film, No Strings Attached will manage to render anything we find endearing there into meaninglessness. In this instance, Adam’s two buddies (Ludacris and Jake Johnson) crush his soul over the balloon play. Or how about this: Adam makes a “period” mix tape for Emma when she isn’t feeling well. Things are cruising smoothly, it’s a modestly amusing scene, and then Emma’s roommate (Greta Gerwig) ruins it by saying, “It’s like a crime scene in my pants.” Outside the box is great, when it works. When a movie plays thoughtful and then shits on the thoughtful through self-deprecation and cringe-worthy humor, it’s about as stressful and random as watching the monitor of a guy who’s dying of heart palpitations.
All of this could be forgiven if we were just given a reason to care about Adam and Emma. Our heroes are free-falling in the beginning, and then embroiled in an underlying love story toward the end. In a good movie, this would mean they are growing as characters and working toward compromise. Either through faulty writing or faulty direction from Reitman, Adam and Emma never have to work to get from point A to point B. Whether Adam and Emma should remain fuck buddies, disassociate from one another’s lives, or end up happily ever after, they needed to work for it. When the standard happy moment is handed to us on a silver platter, it doesn’t feel like a reward. It feels like a flatline.
Comedy is a hard thing to write. It’s often harder when you try to involve romance. I don’t know if Reitman was trying to give us Woody Allen and failed or was trying to give us Bride Wars and succeeded in upping the stakes. Somewhere in the middle of this mess is an impressive, entertaining female lead. Stuck in between its many arduous scenes are witty barbs that won’t let us laugh out loud until several seconds later, when we’ve fully fleshed the ideas out. Deep in this disorder there is a movie we could care about. Someone just needed to connect some strings.
The commentary was shot with Ivan Reitman only, so there are lulls when you’re watching between comments. Other than the commentary, the first extra is called “Sex Friends” which seems to be the original title of No Strings Attached. Ivan Reitman and Elizabeth Meriwether talk about hooking up to make the movie and then several of the characters discuss what each took away from the script. It really seems like Reitman tore up Meriwether’s script and continually forced her to do rewrites, which would go a long way to explain the odd way the story ended up unfolding.
The “Inside the Sassy Halls of Secret High” featurette explains how the ‘show within the show’ was created for No Strings Attached with High School Musical-type productions in mind. It’s sort of disheartening to see the high school kids talk about the character arc and motivations for actions that were ultimately cut from the final product. Hey, that’s why there are deleted scenes, though?
“Modern Love : The Do’s and Don’ts” is more about the ins and outs of a sex-only relationship. It’s quick and painless, but rather pointless.
The deleted scenes are thrown toward the end of the extras, and it’s a shame because there are quite a few to get through, especially if you are down with the High School Musical-esque segments. There are also a couple of alternate storyline scenes, which could just as easily have been thrown in with the deleted fodder. The disc isn’t a terrible waste, but it is also not great.