Yes, “Black Swan” and “No Strings Attached” share at least two things. Both were rated “R” by the MPAA’s rating board—for sexual content, drug use, and other social annoyances—and both star Natalie Portman. The former film has already garnered year-end critical acclaim, with Portman having won numerous awards, including a Golden Globe, for her dark portrayal as an over-aspiring ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s unsettling journey into madness. Yet, as night turns to day, and December somberness turns to January frivolity, Portman’s latest screen adventure is a breezy romance that showcases the 20-something’s growing range as an actress with comic and sex appeal.
The movie should also help rub away some of the tarnish that has caked over Ivan Reitman’s career as a director. Notwithstanding his mainstay producer chores (including 2009’s “Up in the Air”), the last few times he’s picked up the megaphone brought us the lackluster sci-fi and ridiculously silly “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” (2006) and “Evolution” (2001). Reitman’s best era behind the camera were 20+ years ago, with the broad comedies “Meatballs,” “Stripes,” and “Ghostbusters,” which sported his alter-ego Bill Murray. The still enjoyable “Dave” from 1993 featured Kevin Kline as both the President of the United States and a doppelganger who inherits his throne. That film bears a similar realistic, light, and sophisticated tone to his latest effort. It also brings back a very buff Kline, hilariously camping up the screen as a narcissistic yet still adored former television star who has relationship issues, especially with his son’s ex-girlfriends.
The emotional issues that bedevil Alvin Franklin (Kline) are but a subplot to the commitment-free sex-at-any-hour relationship involving his son Adam and Emma Kurtzman (Portman), whose brief, clumsy embrace 15 years earlier at Camp Weehawken showed a younger Adam suffering through his parents’ impeding divorce, and seeking solace in Emma’s private female places. We’re friends, right?
Five years later they meet again by happenstance in Ann Arbor. He’s a typical frat boy. She’s home from Harvard for a ‘thing’ she invites him to the following day. Despite his inappropriate attire when he ends up at a funeral, they have good but unromantic feelings towards each other. Still averse to any commitment, Emma offers him a good bye wish, “If you’re lucky you won’t see me again.”
Skip ahead to ‘1 Year Ago,’ and coincidence brings them together in L.A., where she’s in residency for her medical degree and he’s a bored assistant, aspiring writer on a high school musical-dancing television series that mimics a cross between that popular Fox series and those “High School Musical” films.
Ten minutes into the film, we hit ‘Today,’ and then the fun really begins. The best parts of screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether’s debut feature are the witty moments that involve the now intertwined lives of not only carefree romantic Adam and no-romance-for-me-please, sex-charged, workaholic Emma, but how their support friends react when that weird but modern relationship flounders. For Emma, her group includes best friend Patrice (Greta Gerwig), co-worker Shira (Mindy “The Office” Kaling), roommates including gay Guy (Guy Branum), and sister Katie (Olivia Thirby), who hooks up with Adam’s college buddy Eli (Jake Johnson). Adam’s other bud is Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, as can’t-keep-a-secret bar owner Wallace. The beautiful Lake Bell, terrific in the unjustly canceled tv series “Surface,” is Adam’s geeky co-worker, hidden behind glasses and social awkwardness. Cary Elwes was so well concealed behind a face full of hair that you only realized ‘that’s who that was’ when the end credits rolled (stay for them, the film isn’t over yet).
So with the entire cast up to their task, let’s take a look at Kutcher. Biochemical engineer dropout. Calvin Klein model. Movie star. Played the doltish idiot for seven seasons of the great sitcom “That ’70s Show.” Married to Demi Moore. And never quite the classic actor. He actually looks less edgy in “No Strings Attached” than in anything else I’ve bothered to watch of his ‘work.’ Less punk’d (thank goodness), more earthy. I like it. Has Ashton Kutcher grown up? Well, the way he plays his character certainly seems to imply that. He’s got a chemistry with Portman. He has a nice repartee. When would you have expected someone played by Kutcher to be the sympathetic male lead who knows how to sweetly help Emma and her female roommates survive their monthly menstrual cycle. He even gifts Emma a period mix, featuring Frank Sinatra’s ‘I’ve got the World on a String,’ then spoon feeds her soup. “It’s good for your uterus.” Yeah, good writing, good delivery. Hurrah!
We don’t have a great film here, but it is certainly an enjoyable one. Frisky, well timed, and sweet to the edge of socially acceptable cuteness (for all but the religious right, of course). “No Strings Attached” is a wonderful date flick.