Friday, January 21, 2011

No Strings Attached: Make a date

No Strings Attached (2011) • View trailer for No Strings Attached
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor, vulgar humor, brief nudity and minor drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.21.11

Once it settles down and turns into the film we all paid to see, No Strings Attached is an alternately hilarious and touching romantic comedy, positioned nicely a few weeks ahead of Valentine’s Day.

Rather earthy, as well.
When Emma (Natalie Portman, on the couch) and her roommates -- Shira
(Mindy Kaling, standing) and Patrice (Greta Gerwig) -- retreat into their
apartment because it's "that time of the month," Adam (Ashton Kutcher)
surprises them all by arriving with cupcakes and a rather unusual mix CD.

And therein lies the initial problem. For about the first 15 minutes, writers Elizabeth Meriwether and Michael Samonek try much too hard to enter smutty Judd Apatow territory, and the results are cringe-worthy. The first eye-poppingly vulgar one-liner, exchanged between a boy and girl at a summer camp, delivers a galvanic shock: Did we really just hear that?

(A more apt question: Would a boy that age ever say such a thing to a girl that age? Not for a heartbeat, which is precisely the problem. It ain’t funny.)

Similar raunchy comments flow during the next few sequences, which might be veteran director Ivan Reitman’s version of fair warning, and an effort to clear the theater of patrons too easily offended. But then an odd thing happens: The banter turns measurably milder – if still quite randy – and Reitman manages the deft trick so frequently attempted, without success, by American filmmakers.

He gets very close to the playfully erotic tone of a French sex farce.

Never a bad thing.

All the elements are in play, starting with nice guy Adam (Ashton Kutcher), a mid-level TV production company flunky forever standing in the shadow of his more flamboyant father, Alvin (Kevin Kline), an aging celeb still milking the signature line (“Great Scott!”) that netted him so much willing female companionship back when he starred on a hit sitcom. Not long into this tale, Adam suddenly discovers that his recent ex, Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond, appropriately sultry) is boinking dear ol’ dad ... which leads to all sorts of uncomfortable questions. (“When did this start, exactly?!”)

After losing himself in an alcohol-fueled effort to find somebody – anybody – to bed that night, Adam wakes the next morning in an apartment shared by Emma (Natalie Portman) and her three med student friends, Patrice (Greta Gerwig), Shira (Mindy Kaling) and Guy (stand-up comic Guy Branum). Rather embarrassingly, Adam is starkers and stretched out on the living room couch; even worse, he has no recollection of the previous evening ... and the teasing descriptions supplied by Emma and the others do little to help him regain any composure.

Kutcher, it should be mentioned, does marvelous work in this scene. His confused, hooded, sidelong glances are priceless, his deft efforts to shield his dangly bits a masterpiece of towel manipulation. (Choreographing this scene, and getting it precisely right, must have been hilarious. Goodness knows, the results are suitably funny.)

Adam and Emma have known each other, at some remove, for years; indeed, he’s the boy who utters the jaw-dropping remark to her younger self at the aforementioned summer camp. The cautious distance between them isn’t Adam’s doing; he’s much too amiable and interested (as revealed on several occasions, during the prologue’s several character-establishing flashbacks). Emma, though, keeps herself apart from others: friendly but unwilling to probe her emotional self any deeper.

We’re inclined to believe she reacted badly to her father’s death, during college, and now refuses to engage in any deep relationships, reasoning that she therefore can’t get hurt.

But some physical itches still need to be scratched, and conventional love affairs become even more impossible when one is a med student working crazy shifts for up to 80 hours a week. Emma therefore offers – and Adam accepts – the suggestion that they become “friends with benefits.” Sex with no commitment. Emma even establishes an amusing set of ground rules: no cuddling, no breakfasts the following morning, no overt acts of affection.

Adam, initially viewing her only as a woman he’s always wanted anyway, readily agrees. (Cue a cute montage of random-hours quickies in all sorts of crazy locations.) But we can tell, from the look in his eye, that he expects Emma to change her tune eventually, and to fall in love with him.

Because he’s clearly falling in love with her.

It’s an intriguing issue, played out against romantic comedy conventions. Years ago, When Harry Met Sally explored whether a man and woman could be friends, without sex getting in the way. No Strings Attached considers whether a man and a woman can have sex, without emotions getting in the way. As before, the human condition makes that a fascinating question.

The supporting cast is solid, starting with Sacramento’s own Gerwig, who makes Patrice the sensitive, mildly snarky yin to Emma’s aloof yang. It’s refreshing to see Gerwig granted a chance to shine in gentler company, after being the sole bright spot in last year’s thoroughly unpleasant Greenberg. She’s blessed with a radiant, girl-next-door approachability, along with a mischievous streak just looking to get some exercise.

Kline gets a few choice scenes, his affable bemusement well played; Alvin genuinely has no idea why his son might be bothered by the whole situation with Vanessa. Better yet, Kline also gets a chance to improvise a song at the piano: always a treat.

Jake Johnson and rapper-turned-actor Chris “Ludacris” Bridges get some bonding time with Kutcher as Adam’s best friends, Eli and Wallace. Bridges’ stoic, gravel-voiced one-liners are well-delivered, and his deadpan stares are to die for.

Lake Bell has an unexpectedly soft role as Lucy, a somewhat klutzy production assistant on the TV show where Adam works: a woman who clearly carries a torch for this guy. Bell too often plays bitchy, unpleasant shrikes, and it’s nice to see her kinder, gentler self. She also has some great bits of physical business; Lucy’s constant, flustered adjustment of her oversized glasses is a great running gag.

(It should be noted, by the way, that the TV show in question is a clear nod to Glee. I guess that’s yet another measure of that phenomenon’s astonishing success.)

Olive Thirlby has a few sweet scenes with Portman as Emma’s younger sister, Katie, and Cary Elwes pops up as one of the doctors at the teaching hospital where Emma, Patrice and the others work. Kaling also gets in a few choice lines as the pragmatic Shira.

But the show belongs to Kutcher and Portman, who carry this increasingly touching fantasy with their at-arm’s-length dance. Kutcher gets by with his charm and deft comic timing – neither of which should be taken for granted, just to be clear – while Portman rises to the challenge of her much more demanding role.

Emma can’t be seen as a mean-spirited tease, solely seeking physical gratification with no thought of Adam’s feelings; she must remain sympathetic. Portman pulls this off, and then some. Her lightly dancing eyes eventually turn guarded, cautious, worried – and enchanted – by turns. She knows Adam is a good catch, and that very knowledge makes her pull back ... a guaranteed recipe for eventual anguish.

Incidental comedy bits are quite memorable, none better than the method behind the mix CD Adam brings Emma at one point: a collection of songs that deserves to be published – and employed – for the same purpose in real life. And do remain in your seats after the “final” scene, because the movie isn’t really over; essential bits of business continue to unfold during the closing credits.

Final analysis: The beginning is rocky, but once we get going, the director who brought us Stripes, Ghostbusters and Dave demonstrates that he’s still Got It.

No comments:

Post a Comment