Friday, January 21, 2011

'No Strings Attached,' That's the Arrangement

Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, above, are more than friends in "No Strings Attached." Photos from Paramount Pictures.

AT first glance, “No Strings Attached” looks very much like a by-the-numbers romantic comedy. Look again, though, because it has a bit more going for itself than that.

Starring Natalie Portman as Emma and Ashton Kutcher as Adam, “No Strings Attached” – opening nationwide today – explores the new frontier of the male-female friendship that has the added component of a non-exclusive sexual relationship – in other words, no strings attached. This late 20th-century phenomenon is also known as “friends with benefits” and some coarser terms that won’t be disclosed here.

Adam (Ashton Kutcher) presents Emma (Natalie Portman) with a gift after their first time in "No Strings Attached."

Emma and Adam first meet at summer camp when the two oddballs are around 12 or 13. The next time they run into each other is at a “students gone wild” fraternity pajama party at the University of Michigan. Emma has returned from MIT to her hometown of Ann Arbor for her father’s funeral. Adam is studying at Michigan and is a member of the frat throwing the party. Some years later and in the present day, Emma and Adam meet again at a farmer’s market in Los Angeles. Adam has been working there since graduation, and Emma has recently arrived for a medical residency at a local hospital. Adam, with his girlfriend in tow, suggests that he and Emma hang out. She’s game and puts her telephone number into his mobile phone.

Fast forward several weeks when Adam discovers that his actor father, Alvin – Kevin Kline hamming it up, “Great Scott!,” in one of several strong supporting roles – is shagging his ex-girlfriend. The former goes on a bender. In his drunken state, he phones Emma. The next morning he wakes up naked on the sofa in Emma’s apartment.

Ashton Kutcher, Mindy Kaling, Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig and a "period piece" CD in "No Strings Attached."

Initially, it is not apparent that he is at her place because she does not appear until later. First, he meets Emma’s three roommates who have a little bit of fun at his expense in one of the funniest scenes in “No Strings Attached.” Once Adam discovers where he is and where his clothes are – in Emma’s room – he goes with her to retrieve them. One thing leads to another, and thus is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

After they have had sex after the first time or so, overworked/emotionally detached Emma makes an indecent proposal: “Do you want to do this … Use each other for sex at all hours of the day and night – nothing else?” Adam clearly thinks he is dreaming. The glee he is trying to suppress is palpable. He demures, “Yeah, I can do that.”

Ashton Kutcher and Lake Bell as the klutzy production assistant in love with him in "No Strings Attached."

The men in the audience howl their approval. Throughout the film the audience was clearly divided along gender lines. “No Strings Attached” is not a chick flick or a guy flick. It’s a chick-guy flick and one that will be the source of much debate over the coming weeks.

Out of the indecent accord comes a fair amount of middlebrow comedy. There are a few throwaway moments, too, such as when the now ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond), of both Adam and Alvin suddenly finds herself in the elevator with a bunch of senior citizens. “Old people scare me,” she’d informed Adam the night she abandons his father in an hour of need.

Among the supporting players, only Ludacris (credited in the film as Chris Ludacris Bridges) as the bar-owner friend of Adam squanders his role. Because he comes across as a ‘hood rat’ it is implausible that he would be the proprietor of a bar in an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ludacris has been in the business long enough to now tackle roles that take him beyond his rapper persona. In “No Strings Attached,” he could be playing himself. He is uncomfortable to watch. Doing so is akin to fingernails on a blackboard.

Jake Johnson, Chris Ludacris Bridges and Abby Elliott are friends of Ashton Kutcher in "No Strings Attached."

On the whole though, “No Strings Attached” is not only responsible for a lot of laughs without offending the intelligence and sense of decency. It also engages and entertains. On a surprising note, Natalie Portman is an executive producer. Ashton Kutcher seems a more likely candidate for this role since professionally he is known as much for his producing as his acting. He is most popularly associated with the TV series, “Punk’d.” He long ago shed his image as a model and as Demi Moore’s boytoy.

In any case, it is NP who is wearing the producer hat. She has been a serious actor pretty much since her start. One of her best performances is in “The Professional” opposite Jean Reno. Some actors – Ben Kingsley, Kim Elise and Laurence Fishburne, for instance – have such a serious face that one can’t imagine them in a comedy. NP is in this group. With “The Black Swan,” for which she won a best actress Golden Globe fresh in the collective memory, it is doubly difficult to imagine her taking on material so light. She will likely never do slapstick; hers is cerebral comedy along the lines of Steven Wright. Not only is she funny as Emma, she is brilliant, beautiful and tortured. In fact, the latter are responsible for most of the audiences's smirks and laughs

Adam (Ashton Kutcher) feeds soup to an under-the-weather Emma (Natalie Portman) in "No Strings Attached."

No doubt as an executive producer she expressly requested AK, who does have experience in these corners, as recently as with last year’s “Killers” on which he is a producer. Though NP and AK seem an odd match, they have great chemistry in “No Strings Attached.” The two are utterly believable as friends/lovers. AK’s is a surprising good performance for how he handles the serious moments. He has a way of pursing his lips that evokes just the right emotion, whether it be sadness, earnestness, love or genuine hurt – underneath them all is a raw vulnerability.

It would come as no surprise if NP and AK do another film together. Perhaps, their chemistry will spawn a sequel if “No Strings Attached” does well at the box office. And there is reason to believe it will. The casting is a studio chief’s dream, hitting just about every important demographic: age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality – including “out and proud” and “on the DL.”

“No String Attached” is rated R is for sexual content, language and some drug material.

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