Somewhere hidden inside No Strings Attached is a thoughtful and complicated film about the way truly brilliant people too often over-intellectualize their lives. Natalie Portman plays Emma, a high-IQ up and coming doctor who’s spent her entire life applying the cold logic which serves her so well everywhere else, to the matters of love. In doing so she’s reached the conclusion that relationships are not worth the trouble and even if they were, she doesn’t have time for it. But women, even the most intellectual women, have needs; so when she finds Ashton Kutcher’s Adam naked and in her bedroom, Emma proposes an arrangement: They’ll sleep together with no strings attached, allowing them both to quench their physical desires in the most efficient way possible without getting tangled up in all that stuff she doesn’t want to deal with. Adam, who’s a man, naturally agrees. And then, unfortunately, the movie begins the process of slowly turning Portman’s MIT honors graduate into Katherine Heigl.
Before this story’s over Emma will end up hiding in bushes outside Adam’s door and stuffing her face with discount donut holes, but it feels like those scenes are only in there because someone told director Ivan Reitman this is supposed to be a comedy. Yet even though the movie opens with a joke about kids fingering each other and follows it up with plenty of attempts at gags involving sex friends, it never really feels like there’s anything going on here which someone might want to laugh at. This should have been a serious romance movie about a genius finding a way to get past all the hard numbers cluttering up her head, to deal with the emotions she’s repressed, but No Strings always stops just short of going there. It wants so desperately to be a rom-com, and it’s not.
Ashton Kutcher has developed something of a reputation as an idiot, but the truth is that he’s not an idiot, he just makes movies for idiots. The guy can actually act, he just doesn’t seem to care where he does it. He gives a solid performance in No Strings Attached playing the big hearted romantic opposite Natalie Portman’s Vulcan-like thinker, and the two have a sort of awkward chemistry together that might have turned into something special in a film built on surer footing.
Part of the problem is that Kutcher’s character ends up as the movie’s lead when it probably should have been Portman as the focus. We spend a lot of running time on Adam’s work and family life, none of which really seems to relate in any way to the real heart of the film: his relationship with Emma. Kevin Kline is a big part of that, as a dead-end subplot in which Adam has a celebrity father. This too seems as though it was only shoe-horned in at the last minute, because someone decided this movie needed to be funny. Despite Kline’s usual heroics, it isn’t.
What’s here are a lot of questions about what might have been. There’s plenty to like about No Strings Attached, enough that you’ll wish it had been done better. Even as is the film delivers a few genuinely well-thought out ideas with interesting performances built on a script that, for the most part anyway, thinks outside the box. Yes it’s too often scattered and unsure of what it wants to be, but maybe there’s something worthwhile in this story, despite the missteps. If you’re looking for romance, you could do a lot worse than No Strings Attached.