Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) have known each other on and off since they were fourteen years old. Years later, Adam is hopelessly depressed after his girlfriend dumps him for his father (Kevin Kline) and seeks solace in a one night stand with Emma. For Adam it seems like love, but Emma has no intention of getting emotionally involved. What she suggests instead is that they become sex buddies. Just night after night of fun, meaningless sex with no strings attached.
Only in movies could anyone get this lucky with someone this attractive. Fans of Portman and Kutcher won’t know who to envy more in a film whose premise is pure wish fulfillment with a mushy romantic centre to take the edge off its bawdier undertones. Indeed, No Strings Attached is quite pleased with its own attempts to seem naughty and knowing in a sardonic way. Working from a screenplay by Elizabeth Merriwether, Ivan Reitman seemingly aspires to the kind of sophisticated sex farce more commonly found in French cinema but the film’s frank sex scenes and strained attempts at edgy humour are rather embarrassing, as when Portman dons a pair of 3-D glasses to eyeball Kutcher’s cock (“It looks like it’s coming right at me”).
Naturally this being a romantic comedy and not some seedy porn flick, we know Adam and Emma’s relationship is bound to get more complicated. Truth be told the predictable, fluffy romantic stuff proves far more convincing than the film’s attempts to appear clever and risque. Even so the leads essay rather curious characters whose psychological flaws presumably read better on the page than they play onscreen. The kind of people one only ever encounters in convoluted rom-coms like this. Realising the premise is paper thin, Reitman tries desperately to flesh things out with an array of bizarre non-sequiturs and subplots: Adam’s estrangement from his famous father; his attempt to launch a screenwriting career on a Glee-like TV show; his friend Eli’s (Jake M. Johnson) courtship of Emma’s friend Patrice (rising star Greta Gerwig); the unrequited love of neurotic-but-sexy co-worker Lucy (Lake Bell); Emma’s curious ongoing attempts to seduce a senior male colleague (Cary Elwes); and a lesbian subplot that comes completely out of left-field. Each of these falls resoundingly flat despite the valiant efforts of a game cast as the film drags long past the point of interest.
Ashton Kutcher upholds his tradition of maintaining an affable presence in a shallow role while Natalie Portman, despite having proven her skill at comedy via guest stints on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, seems uneasy here. On the other hand, fans may get a kick out of seeing the normally demure star trash-talking and bitch slapping lesser mortals with maximum sass. It is an oddly appealing new side of her. In one of those occasional coincidences in Hollywood, both the stars of the Oscar-nominated Black Swan (2010) released films with a similar "sex buddy" premise in the same year, as Mila Kunis paired up with Justin Timberlake for the almost identical Friends with Benefits (2011). First Portman, then Kunis? Some Hollywood executive has a really overactive imagination.