By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
No strings, we can deal with. It's that there's no heat, no edge, no bite, no depth, and no follow-through to this rom-com about romantic commitment that makes it difficult to commit to, despite the appeal of its leads.
Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher co-star as doctor-in-training Emma and aspiring TV writer Adam, now working as a production assistant on a musical-comedy TV series (think "Glee" or "High School Musical").
E and A were friends during their Los Angeles childhood and they reunited at summer camp, in college, and again at the start of their respective careers.
Then, following circumstances precipitated by Adam's ex-girlfriend running off with his former-TV-star dad, played by Kevin Kline, the buds go to bed one drunken evening.
They don't want it to scotch their friendship so they make a pledge: they will live up to the title of the film by avoiding anything that smacks of an emotionally mature relationship. They will keep the relationship strictly physical and do nothing that romantically committed couples do. They will continue to have a sexual relationship but will routinely toss their emotions in the hall closet on their way to the bedroom. They will exhibit no jealousy and remain unaffected by each other's other involvements. And although they will make love, as "friends with benefits" (the original title and soon to be that of another rom-com release), they will not not under any circumstances fall in love.
This arrangement grows out of her desire to keep things sexual rather than emotional despite his desire for something more romantic, a gender-bending of the usual movie convention featuring the guy resisting pressure from the gal to deepen the relationship.
Well, anyway, you know the drill. It's a time-tested formula for romantic comedy and it's been done to death. We know that going in. So the issue isn't whether this is a new tack, it's whether it's executed effectively.
That's director Ivan Reitman's job, and he doesn't do it all that well.
Veteran comedy helmer Reitman (Ghostbusters, Kindergarten Cop, Dave, Junior), under the radar this decade (Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend), works -- in his first film in five years -- from a contrived script by debuting screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether based on a story by Meriwether and Mike Samonek that never brings its main characters to three-dimensional life and makes only a halfhearted attempt to breathe fresh life into the increasingly stale romantic comedy genre by reversing the conventional gender roles.
Reitman is enough of a comic technician to wring a few laughs out of the material, sure. But if he has a handle on contemporary sexual mores, it never quite shows itself.
The film rests, then, on the charm and chemistry of Portman and Kutcher. Portman -- also serving as an executive producer and coming off an impressive and likely award-winning performance in Black Swan -- shows her range by turning effortlessly from intense drama to relaxed comedy and turning in an assured performance that's comedically assertive without being overbearing.
Kutcher, in an admittedly underwritten role, brings little but ease and surface charm to the table. But he gets the chance to remind us of his natural comic timing, obscured of late by his questionable choices in big-screen projects and his willy-nilly penchant for non-movie-related publicity.
Ultimately, it's the script that lets the performers down. The narrative runs out of steam so completely in Act III that the "is-that-all-there-is?" lament kicks in while the film drags on as if everyone involved had just run out of ideas and ambition.
So we'll befriend 2 stars out of 4 for No Strings Attached, an also-ran of a romantic comedy that sets out on the road to daring and different, but ends up making us feel it's just stringing us along.
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