I wasn’t expecting greatness from No Strings Attached. It’s not as though I never saw the promos for it. It’s a romantic comedy starring Ashton Kutcher; I just naturally assume there’s a ceiling on the potential quality there. And having seen Valentine’s Day, I don’t assume there’s a floor. But somehow I thought this might be all right. Maybe because it also stars Natalie Portman, who is usually pretty good in films. Or maybe — probably — because it was directed by Ivan Reitman, who directed the great comedy Stripes and the masterpiece Ghostbusters. But then I remember he also directed Junior.
I didn’t hate No Strings Attached, but I’m finding it difficult to come up with things to praise about it.
The plot is threadbare. Portman’s a busy overworked doctor. Kutcher is a television director’s assistant with dreams of being a script writer. She has difficulty forming emotional attachments, he’s more open but is jaded due to issues with his father (Kevin Kline) — issues which have gotten worse since his father started dating his ex-girlfriend. After a few friendly meetings and what would could have been a one-night stand, they decide to have a strictly sexual relationship with each other — purely physical, no emotional involvement. Of course, we all know how that’s going to turn out and what pitfalls will come up along the way.
Portman’s character tells us she has trouble forming relationships and doesn’t like to get attached, but it’s mostly the same socially-awkward act we see in many other rom-coms. It’s not particularly interesting. Kutcher’s character is similarly flat, but becomes the highlight of the film simply because Kutcher occasionally gets a good comedic line and — while not a comic virtuoso by any means — he at least delivers them in a manner that fits and can get a laugh.
These lines are rarities, because most of the intended jokes fall flatter than the characters. There are a host of sidekick characters who are mostly interchangeable, played by a number of moderately talented actors who don’t deserve to have their names drug through the mud over this film. It’s not their fault they were handed dialogue that nobody on the planet has ever said casually. It feels like a highlight reel of generic romantic comedy and buddy comedy lines, only instead of picking the best quotes, they’re picking the most stilted. There was even the standard “I’m the guy she marries, you’re the guy she screws around with a couple times” line, delivered by a character who apparently exists for no other reason — other than a credits gag, I can’t remember another scene in which the guy factors significantly. Not that I would have relished the love triangle subplot, but it’s a sign of weak writing to reference it so strongly and then do nothing at all with it.
I did smile some, I did laugh a few times. But only a few. I didn’t find myself caring about the characters, I wasn’t invested in the story. My brain wasn’t screaming for relief at the end of the film, but it is already diligently overwriting those sections of memory.