NO STRINGS ATTACHED: It’s Like a Crime Scene in My Pants

No Strings Attached (2011) – Directed by Ivan Reitman – Starring Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Greta Gerwig, Jake Johnson, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Kline, Chris Bridges, Olivia Thirlby, Lake Bell, Ophelia Loviband, Abby Elliot, Talia Balsam, and Cary Elwes.

NO STRINGS ATTACHED is the kind of movie that tells the wrong story. It concentrates on the relationship between Adam and Emma (Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman), but it’s the most mindless relationship in the film. Adam is completely in love with Emma and Emma is emotionally distant. She just wants to have sex and he agrees because he’s infatuated with her, so they have lots and lots of sex and things get awkward because, well, they’re having lots and lots of sex and he’s infatuated with her and she doesn’t want to feel anything but can’t help herself.

So we have to spend 1 hour and 47 minutes watching them go through all the motions and back and forth and it’s rather tedious. I get that this is kind of the point of a romcom, but does it have to be so bland and predictable and stupid?

I’m much more interested in either the bizarre relationship between Adam’s dad (Kevin Kline) and his ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Loviband) or the growing relationship between his friend Eli (Jake Johnson) and Emma’s friend Patrice (Greta Gerwig). I’m much happier watching Eli and Patrice in their brief bits of relationship growth than in watching Adam and Emma struggle through their issues. That’s the relationship I want to see develop. Is that stupid? Is that wanting something romcoms don’t deliver? Wouldn’t people rather watch that than see two people cause each other misery for 90 minutes until finally realizing what we saw in the first frame?

I don’t get it.

Part of the problem is the script, which is terrible, but part of the problem is the odd pairing of Portman and Kutcher. Portman is way too good an actress to be in something this lame and predictable and lifeless and Kutcher spends most of the movie with a wounded puppy dog look on his face. It’s supposed to convey the fact that he’s in love and knows he can’t admit it to her or he risks losing her, but it comes off like he knows he’s in over his head just being on screen with Portman and Kevin Kline. I’ll say this for Kutcher, though – he might not be able to hang with Portman or Kline but he’s committed to the movie and committed to his character and he ends up coming out okay.

Kutcher is at his best when Portman and Kline are at their worst and it’s largely because of the script. When we get to the point in the film where Adam professes his love for Emma and she rejects him and he gets hurt and says they’ll never see each other again and then they spend months apart, only to have Emma finally realize she loves him and wants him back and blah blah blah, she drives her car and cries and eats doughnut holes and wipes powdered sugar across her face. It has to be one of the worst moments of her career.

A few scenes after that, Adam’s dad is in bed, recovering from an overdose of Purple Drank and Kline has to say, “I’ve six pictures of my c*ck on my phone and two of someone else’s, and I’m still pretty high on the cough syrup, so you can take this with a grain of salt, but we don’t pick who we fall in love with. And it never happens like it should.”

Honestly, someone wrote that and Kevin Kline agreed to say it.

NO STRINGS ATTACHED isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever watched, and there is a certain crashing of worlds going on here that gives the film a car wreck vibe to it, but it’s really just a film that’s one-half short of being mediocre. When I had cable I used to refer to movies like this as “AMC Movies,” because AMC always used to show a lot of really mediocre films with really big name casts. That’s what this is. In ten or twenty or fifty years people will stumble across this movie on whatever passes for their TV dial, see the list of actors, and settle in for a watch and maybe get some small enjoyment out of it.

For me, though, it left me wanting to see the stories we didn’t see rather than the Adam/Emma plot we got stuck with. Greta Gerwig hasn’t been in anything I’ve ever seen, but I’d like to see more of her because she conveys more about her character through her facial expressions than the silly dialogue provides. (Plus, she gets the best line of the film, complaining about her monthly menstrual phase and complains, “It’s like a crime scene in my pants.”) Same goes for Abby Elliot, who has a brief role as a waitress, but still manages to have a real presence on the screen that drew me in to her character far more than Portman did with the empty Emma construct. A romcom focused on the secondary characters who have to live through the silliness of the obvious Adam/Emma relationship would be a hundred times more interesting, and if they could get Gerwig, Elliot, Johnson, Mindy Kaling, Chris Bridges, and Olivia Thirlby to star in it, all the better.

Because that’s really where NO STRINGS ATTACHED falls apart. There’s an actual, honest-to-goodness story here about how single, professional women can be caught between their careers and traditional gender expectations but the film really isn’t interested in exploring any of that. It just wants Emma to be a woman with a job who likes to have casual sex but then gets waylaid by emotions. That’s it – there’s no exploration of that idea beyond her getting drunk at a party, getting jealous over thinking Adam is hooking up with two women she decides are skanks, and then bursting into his apartment.

Alternately, this film could have presented a very real story about Adam and his love for Emma and the gender expectations of his buddies telling him to hook up with anyone and everyone to get over the girl he’s clearly not going to get over. Adam’s a good guy, but he’s a sap, and if STRINGS was actually interested in telling a story, he would have found someone else, someone who had as good a heart as him. Or it would have simply let him gain an identity that wasn’t tied to being in love. Unfortunately, STRINGS doesn’t want to tell a story – it just wants to feed our expectations and so at the end of the film, Emma cries and Adam takes her back and happily ever after is promised.

For nearly everyone.

Just like in real life …

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3 thoughts on “NO STRINGS ATTACHED: It’s Like a Crime Scene in My Pants

  1. Mark,

    Script issues aside for a moment, do you think that a contributing factor in the film’s averageness (that’s a word, right? screw it, I’m rolling with it) is that Ivan Reitman, as a director, has really never been all that good at handling relationships beyond the ‘buddy’ stage?

    As a director, he’s done some of the most memorable, generally oddball ‘buddy comedies’ of the last 30 years (Stripes, Ghostbusters, Twins, hell, even Meatballs and Evolution), but most of the ‘relationships’ he’s tried to put on film have largely fallen flat. Even working with some very talented actors in Kline, Sigourney Weaver, and Bill Murray the relationships play out less as real romantic engagements and more as, well, buddies, for lack of a better term (give me a break, I’m only halfway through my morning coffee here and my brain is still frozen from the 7 degree walk from the subway…).

    I’m not saying better direction could salvage some of the dialog and plot points, but a skillful hand can at least smooth out the edges. Try just reading the script to Jaws, some of the dialog, pacing, etc, is, on it’s face, pretty hokey/clunky. Even with the phenomenal cast, that’s a script Uwe Boll or Michael Bay would easily turn into something almost unwatchable (though the scene at the end with the gas tank would have probably been way more exciting).

    Just my two cents, non-adjusted for inflation.

    Anyway, keep up the good work and have a happy New Year.

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    • I think you’re right, Eric. Reitman’s direction here is just sort of flat and uninspired. I hadn’t thought of his poor handling of romantic relationships, but I think you’re spot on with that analysis. Reitman’s films (what we think of as Reitman films) are built to be funny most of all, but this movie needs to be built mostly around the romantic relationship and the comedy should serve that end, not the other way around.

      Sorry about the cold walk. I won’t mention it’s 60 degrees and sunny in Reno today.

      Have a great New Year, yourself. And thanks, as always, for the thoughtful, um, thoughts.

      Like

  2. Well now I’m confused. I just read two reviews and watched a video blog of two guys with the consensus that No Strings Attached was actually fairly decent despite casting Kutcher for the lead role. Now you’re telling me it’s exactly what I initially thought it was, a mindless, predictable, movie that is banking on its cast of stars. I know I’m late but this movie is available through Blockbuster @Home from my employer, DISH, and I am trying to find out if it’s a waste of time or not. I knew it wasn’t worth seeing in the theaters but it won’t cost me anything this time around since Blockbuster @Home has a set monthly rate. I guess I can always just watch it with a friend so we can chat during lulls.

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