Director: Ivan Reitman
Stars: Natalie Portman (Emma), Ashton Kutcher (Adam), Kevin Kline (Alvin), Greta Gerwig (Patrice), Cary Elwes (Dr Metzner), Lake Bell (Lucy)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
And thus in one fell swoop any flickering credibility that I may have managed to muster over the last two years is instantly extinguished. Snuffed out. Just like that. No matter that I’ve covered off the likes of McCabe & Mrs Miller, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Vertigo or Mulholland Drive, this one entry manages to single-handedly negate all of that. Because, really, how can a modern-day romantic comedy starring Ashton fucking Kutcher of all people even remotely dare to share space with such cinematic gold? Basically, I’m finished, right?
Except, hang on, why should I be? Of all genres, even the rarely credible ones like fantasy or horror, the romantic comedy is probably the least respected of all. Formulaic, light-weight, utterly disposable and instantly replaceable, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a Starbucks or a Happy Meal. Quick and easy to deal with, not something you particularly brag about, nothing anyone’s going to reminisce over. By and large, especially in more snobbish circles, it’s the horse’s arse of the movie world. Respect is very, very hard to come by.
Even this piece, which has started out on an incredibly defensive note, will take pains to admit there are reasons why this film is making the list, and why, despite it’s inclusion I don’t set it alongside the likes of, say, Apocalypse Now or The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. Sure, I love No Strings Attached, but that love comes with a sets of caveats.
Appearing mere months apart from Will Gluck’s almost-identically-themed Friends With Benefits, No Strings Attached is a go-to movie for me when I need something that’s easy and comforting and nothing else. Usually this means I’ve either had a phenomenally bad day or, more likely, I’m hungover as hell and feel the need to surround myself with soft edges. Now that doesn’t sound much like a ringing endorsement either, but there are times when you don’t want cinema to be hectic or challenging or confrontational. When you just want something to take you away.
This is part of why film criticism has a tough time with romantic comedy. Most often these films are there to act as comfort food; their purpose of being is not to start a conversation with the viewer. Few and far between are the romcoms which aspire to a greater meaning or purpose. Political subtext? If it’s there it’s probably coincidental. And so, with no discernible ‘deeper’ levels to peel away to, film journalists deny these films credibility because they offer less column inches of filler. The discussion appears smaller because of the romcom’s perceived lack of ambition, yet what is rarely discussed is how well a romantic comedy fulfills its own remit.
If the objective is to provide the viewer with an entertaining daydream, then No Strings Attached fulfills it’s remit with ease. Meet commitaphobe Emma; working as a doctor, wanting a physical connection but loathe to open up for an emotional one. Setting aside for the moment the fact that we have a leading female character here who is refreshingly unapologetic about enjoying sex, our other lead in this story is Adam, the coasting son of a popular actor who, from the film’s get-go, is a man striving to hide an equally refreshing streak of sensitivity and romanticism (albeit, y’know, jock-y). He also recently found out his dad is sleeping with his ex-girlfriend. Ouch.
Emma and Adam fall into an agreement to be
friends with benefits regular sexual partners, eschewing the hassles, responsibilities and emotional attachments of a committed couple. Emma, because she’s afraid of being damaged by genuine connection… Adam because he’s so completely smitten with Emma that any situation will do.
There’s a pleasing role reversal here, and both Natalie Portman and, yes, Ashton Kutcher are utterly charming in their respective roles. Needless to say things turn more complicated than they initially expect. You can probably sketch out the remainder of the film’s story beats without seeing the film and you’re bound to come close to accurate… but predictability is part of the point, remember? Films like No Strings Attached are comforting because of the security they offer. So what elevates this one, for me?
Aside from feeling like a snapshot of 2011 culture (with its Glee-like fictional show ‘VHS’, text-etiquette and internet-slang – all simply accepted in Elizabeth Meriweather’s breezy script), Reitman imbues the film with a warm Los Angeles glow appropriate to the candyfloss atmosphere. He also lines up a great ensemble cast, all flexing their comic chops (and Ludacris). For example, did you know Greta Gerwig is in this movie? She’s one of US cinema’s secret weapons of late; outstanding in Frances Ha and slyly stealing scenes wherever she’s supposed to be supporting. And while Kutcher has proven comic timing, Portman’s Emma is the real treat here, the serious actress shows off a disarming talent for sly and/or cheeky wit.
Speaking of sly and/or cheeky wit, Meriweather’s script keeps things peppy and sparkling and, yes, genuinely funny throughout. Here we have a romcom that doesn’t forget the com. Reitman, no stranger to comic timing himself, nimbly navigates all of this safe in the knowledge that his cast is up to the job. And it’s quotable too! Combined, what you get it a light, knowing, wholly enjoyable way to utterly waste 107 minutes. It’s colourful, charming… A film which feels like a hug, one that’s also a tiny bit sexy (Portman in her underwear. Sorry, but yes). A film which dares to celebrate being really attractive, comfortably well-off, and Californian. This film is so indulgently Hollywood that it airbrushes itself in the mirror before going out to meet the world every morning. I don’t even care how clumsy and weird a metaphor that is; I’m eating banoffee pie and watching No Strings Attached. I’M A 31 YEAR-OLD MAN SITTING IN HIS BEDROOM ON A FRIDAY NIGHT WATCHING NO STRINGS ATTACHED AND EATING BANOFEE PIE.
Also Cary Elwes is in this movie. He’s cool right? Because of The Princess Bride and Saw. And lest we forget, naysayers, doubters, deriders (not a word, but hey), this is a film from the director of Ghostbusters… so shut the hell up already*. No Strings Attached isn’t ever going to make the imdb top 250, let alone Sight & Sound‘s esteemed critic’s countdown. But it’s not supposed to. It’s there to be disposable. To be comforting. To be around when you need something easy and colourful and nothing like your dreary, boring, less-sexy, less-conveniently-plotted life. So fuck hiding that I love this movie. I’m going to watch it a lot more than The White Ribbon, I know that. I know which is technically the better film. And I don’t care. Sometimes you need soft edges.
Don’t worry, normal service will be resumed shortly, and the next entry in this series will be for a dependably serious drama, worthy art film or some indulgently trashy genre picture. But for now…
I’ve really had too much banoffee pie.
*He also directed Evolution… but shut the hell up already.