Friday, January 21, 2011

No Strings Attached

Ah, the romantic comedy; you already know the general plot, right? Boy meets girl, they fall in love despite boy being a dweeb/loser/fat/womanizer, but then boy screws things up and loses girl so boy has to win girl back before it's too late and she goes off with cool jerk/moves away/gets herself to a nunnery. “No Strings Attached” is the new RomCom from director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”) starring Ashton Kutcher (“That 70's Show) and Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) as our couple-to-be, but this movie does play the story a little bit different.

Adam (Kutcher) and Emma (Portman) originally met as kids at summer camp, but it isn't until they meet again ten years later that a real spark starts up between them. They are clearly attracted to each other, but as Emma describes herself as not being very affectionate this meeting results in one very awkward not-date before they go their separate ways again.

Jump ahead to the present and Adam has a job as an assistant on a television show that looks to have take more than a little inspiration from “High School Musical”, and Emma is working through her residency at the local teaching hospital. Adam is not having a good time of it; he's just found out that his ex-girlfriend has hooked up with his father (Kevin Kline), and in a night of drunk-dialing, Adam calls every woman he knows trying to find one to have sex with him. This is how Emma and Adam finally end up together.

I said before that this film flips the standard RomCom script a little bit, and the flip is that the conflict in their relationship is not the fault of Adam. Kutcher actually does a good job of dialing down his seemingly natural douchiness and playing a really genuinely nice guy; it's Emma that's the problem. While Adam would happily enter into a relationship, Emma does not like them; she compares being in a relationship to having an allergic reaction to peanuts. What she really wants is someone to have sex with with no complications, no jealousy, no strings attached (ah ha!), so they become “sex friends”. How long can this last though? Can Adam not push her away by trying to pull her closer? Can Emma stop herself from having human emotions? Can they really stretch this story out to almost two hours? Well, the answer to the last question is a resounding yes.

This movie is long, too long. Two hours is a good length for a fantasy epic, or a historical drama, but it is too long for a movie like this. It would not be so bad if they simply kept to scenes that contributed to the story. The problem with doing that is that a lot of the funniest scenes (Adam's mix CD is a perfect example) do nothing but take up time, while the scenes that forward the story tend to be rather meh. At times the film feels like the writers had great ideas for scenes, but no way to make them relevant, but decided leave them in anyway. There are easily thirty minutes worth of fluff that could have been trimmed out which would have saved me a lot of watch checking.

Another thing that seems to add to the length is the sheer number of stock RomCom characters present in the film. You have Adam's funny friends, Jake and Eli (Ludacris and Jake M. Johnson), who are not all that funny. You have Emma's roommates/friends, Patrice (Greta Gerwig), the BFF, Shira (Mindy Kaling), the snarker, and Guy (Guy Branum), the gay guy, none of whom get much of a chance to shine. There's the beta couple, fulfilled by Eli and Patrice, who seem to be more interested in staying out of the conflict than helping their respective friends in a more traditional beta couple role. Then there's the standard handsome mature jerk who wants Emma for himself, Sam (Ben Lawson), whose subplot is dropped before it ever really gets going. Finally there's the other woman, Lucy (Lake Bell), who is far too nice to deserve to be caught in the splash damage from Emma and Adam's relationship, but that's okay, because her subplot lasts even less time than Sam's (honestly, I liked her character better than Emma, even though they try to make her REALLY annoying towards the end).

Aside from all those characters fighting for screen time, there's the aforementioned Kevin Kline as Adam's actor father, and, most confusingly, Cary Elwes as one of the doctors at Emma's hospital. Kline is actually quite fun to watch in this movie, but I say that Elwes is the most confusing because his role has no significance; it could have been played by any no name actor. While he does appear in a number of scenes, he only has three or four lines and spends most of his screen time looking confused. I imagine that he was wondering why he was even there; I know I was.

Naturally Kutcher and Portman take most of the screen time, and they both do a good job. Kutcher shows some real range in this, breaking free of the personality built by years of “That 70's Show” and “Punk'd” to create a character that is at the same time fun and a little goofy, but still a mature, likable person. Portman's character is not quite as likable, but the exact roots of her damage are never explored (there is one scene that tries to explain it, but if you watched the film's first ten minutes then this explanation will not make sense). Portman's Emma tends to be all over the place as far as her personality goes, but this seems to be the result of the writers and director being unsure what is really wrong with her rather than any fault of Natalie Portman.

This film is a bit of a mediocre mess, even by romantic comedy standards. It tries to use a reasonably unique premise, but it gets so caught up in playing with as many RomCom tropes as it can that it turns into a rambling mess of minor characters with nothing to do fighting for a reason to be there. It's almost as if Ivan Reitman were trying to troll the crowd that likes traditional romantic comedies by turning traditional roles on their ear, but even if that was his goal, it just comes across as a poor effort. The movie does have a few good laughs, and seeing Natalie Portman swerve around drunkenly while cursing is quite amusing, but it's not enough to redeem this. Even compared to some of last year's efforts, like“Going the Distance” or “She's Out of my League” this movie falls well short of what a good romantic comedy should be, and what it could have been.

Unless you really want to see Ashton Kutcher's bare ass on a big screen (sorry guys, Portman never appears in less than modest underwear), there are just better ways to spend your time and money this weekend. It's too long, and while it does try to be everything a romantic comedy should be, it ends up missing that target by a lot. Spend your money on something better this weekend.

“No Strings Attached” is in theaters now.

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