Combustible Celluloid
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With: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Cary Elwes, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Jake Johnson, Mindy Kaling, Talia Balsam, Ophelia Lovibond, Guy Branum, Ben Lawson, Jennifer Irwin, Adhir Kalyan
Written by: Elizabeth Meriwether, based on a story by Michael Samonek, Elizabeth Meriwether
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, language and some drug material
Running Time: 110
Date: 01/11/2011

No Strings Attached (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Sex Friends

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The romantic comedy is the weakest and laziest genre around today, perhaps even more so than horror remakes. There are only a handful of formulas that are repeated with only the tiniest bit of effort; most of them manage to send women's liberation hurtling decades backward. First, there's the "lie" plot, in which one character can't tell the other character the truth, for fear of some terrible consequences (While You Were Sleeping, etc.). Then there's the "supernatural" romantic comedy, in which some magical circumstances lead someone to true love (Ghost Town, etc.). Perhaps worst of all are the "meet-hate" movies in which two people spend the entire movie fighting before falling in love (The Break-Up, etc.).

Much rarer are the movies in which two people simply struggle with the stupid, complicated problems of everyday life, such as personal experience and emotional wounds. Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached is such a movie. It starts with some flashbacks, showing how Emma and Adam met, first at summer camp, then at a college party, before finally winding up in the same city as grown-ups. Now Emma (Natalie Portman) is a medical resident, and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) works on a "Glee"-like television show, and quietly hopes to be a writer someday. They make an instant connection and sleep together right away. After another couple of trysts, Emma decides that they should be "sex friends" and Adam agrees.

Of course, the happy-go-lucky Adam falls helplessly in love with his adorably aggravating new partner, but she has certain control/commitment issues that prevent her from succumbing. At one point, when things have grown a little too close and comfortable, she even announces that they should both go off and sleep with other people, to kind of clear the slate. Everything comes to a head when Adam talks her into going on a Valentine's Day date, and he nearly drops the L-word on her.

There's no doubt where this is going, of course, and it even climaxes with a character racing a car across town. But Kutcher and Portman have an undeniable chemistry. They seem to really enjoy one another. I had wondered if Kutcher would drag Portman down to his vulgar level, or whether Portman would give him some class, but instead they both meet on some new, comfortable level. (This movie doesn't besmirch the memory of Portman's astonishing achievement in Black Swan.) It helps that the screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether has given them a witty, no-holds-barred screenplay, and that the studio wisely decided not to neuter it down to a PG-13. The actors have carte blanche in terms of language and sex, and they're clearly enjoying their freedom. The movie has lots of genuine laughs, though they are mostly bunched up in the first half.

Even the "best friend" and "sidekick" characters are funny here. Director Reitman has cast indie queens Greta Gerwig and Olivia Thirlby, rapper Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, the hilarious Mindy Kaling and Lake Bell, and charming veterans Kevin Kline and Cary Elwes, as well as comic actor Jake Johnson. Director Reitman has always attracted good and funny casts, and he is best known for the blockbuster favorite Ghostbusters (1984), but the rest of his track record ranges from spotty to downright awful (Legal Eagles, Kindergarten Cop, Junior, Father's Day, Six Days Seven Nights, Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, etc.). Here, he seems more comfortable, and less straddled with a sitcom plot; the movie breathes. It's not a classic, and it's not particularly brilliant or unique, but it's sweet, sexy, and funny, and that's no small feat for such a tired genre.

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