Early on in No Strings Attached, Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher), casual acquaintances since adolescence, give in to the vague attraction they had always felt and have sex. The romp is so mutually satisfying that they strike a deal: They’ll be each other’s “sex friend,” available 24/7 by phone or text message but only for a private carnal rendezvous. No public displays of affection, no cuddling or spooning, no staring deep into each other’s eyes.
That arrangement might work for say, a married man with a mistress. But with two young, good-looking and single people who obviously enjoy each other’s company, the plan is destined to fail. No Strings Attached is a variation on When Harry Met Sally …, which argued that sex can ruin a friendship between a man and a woman. This time, director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs), working from a witty script by Elizabeth Meriwether, finds out whether a relationship can ruin a sexual connection. This is the first of two movies coming out this year to explore the question (Friends With Benefits, starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, is due in July), and chances are both pictures will arrive at the same conclusion.
But even though No Strings Attached is the sort of movie in which you know exactly how things will turn out five minutes into the story, it makes the predictable journey surprisingly fun and enjoyable. Reitman, a veteran of hit comedies (and father of Jason, who directed Up in the Air), knows how to pace and edit around jokes for maximum comic effect, and the script is unusually sharp for the rom-com genre, stuffed with memorable lines and situations — most of them gleefully R-rated — that give the actors something to do other than riff and flail around in cute fashion.
Portman, who isn’t exactly known as a comedienne, visibly relishes the opportunity to play a sassy, sexually confident, free-spirited woman with a naughty streak (her performance is particularly enjoyable coming off Black Swan, in which she spent most of her screen time in a tremulous, terrified state). Kutcher will never be a great actor, but he’s more than fine as a likable, honest guy who plays the female role in the relationship: He’s the one who wants more than just sex from Emma, a yearning that baffles his friends, who don’t understand why he’s not satisfied with the arrangement (“You don’t even have to have breakfast with her!” one notes),
No Strings Attached is packed with memorable supporting characters, such as Emma’s fellow-medical-intern pals, who are so close they’ve started sharing their menstruation cycles (“It’s like a crime scene in my pants,” one of them moans), Adam’s movie-star father (Kevin Kline), who has shacked up with his son’s ex-girlfriend or Adam’s roommate Eli (Jake Johnson), who complains when the couple gets a little too noisy (“I can’t focus on my porn with all this real sex going on!” he whines as he pounds on their bedroom door). The performances are all strong and the characters much more realized than is usual for this kind of picture.
Unfortunately, No Strings Attached eventually succumbs to the weepy melodrama that typically afflicts the third act of most romantic comedies, and although Reitman is careful to keep sneaking in the jokes, the movie starts to wear out its welcome while you wait for the lovebirds to come to their senses and do what they should have done a long time ago. No Strings Attached comes on strong and ends somewhat limply, but the acting makes the movie much funnier than you might have expected. Imagine this same material with, say, Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler as the leads. The horror. The horror.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin KIine, Cary Elwes, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Ludacris, Mindy Kaling.
Director: Ivan Reitman.
Screenwriter: Elizabeth Meriwether.
Producers: Jeffrey Clifford, Joe Medjuck, Ivan Reitman.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, constant talk about naughty, adults-only business. Opens Friday Jan. 21 at area theaters.