By: Addison Wylie
They say “opposites attract”. No Strings Attached wears this saying on it’s sleeve. Adam, played by Ashton Kutcher, has been falling for Emma ever since he was a young man going through puberty. The problem is that Emma, played by Natalie Portman, has no interest in a relationship. Years go on and the two individuals keep running into each other. It may have been a while since the two met eyes but Adam’s pent up feelings still exist; as well as the awkwardness. After mishaps regarding his ex-girlfriend dating his Father, Adam runs into Emma yet again but this time, very drunk. Once sobered up, Adam and Emma begin to talk more and, suddenly, this hidden fiery energy bursts. Spur of the moment feelings take hold and the two end up sleeping with one another. Both enjoyed the experience but Emma still has commitment issues. Instead of being the typical boyfriend/girlfriend pairing, the two friends decide to try a relationship that doesn’t tie neither of them down. Simply, they phone each other up, have sex, and carry on with their day. Friends with benefits, if you will. However, with Adam’s feelings growing for Emma, this may not be the best situation for the hopeful romantic.
No Strings Attached feels extremely calculated. The film’s plot and its jokes are set-up in a sitcom-esque manner. Punchlines and flat emotions feel like they are being bludgeoned into the heads of the audience. For example, after early exchanges between Alex and Emma, there are long beats in between jokes; portions of quietness where the film has given the audience time to laugh. These instances remain silent though due to the jokes not being very strong. As for the emotions, the actors are given prolonged shots to hold a certain emotion. Supporting characters are given short monologues filled with “uplifting” advice that constantly reminds the audience that these are “the wise friends”. On top of that, if there is any movie goer still confused about what they should be feeling, the soundtrack fades up to beat the emotions deeper into their skull. It’s not like the movie is a tough cookie or anything; the content is easy to digest. It boggles the mind as to why Director Ivan Reitman decided to direct his actors like this. Then again, when he’s having to work with a script that includes tired characters, maybe it was the only directional route to take.
In fact, the lead characters act as a major disadvantage to the movie. It’s obvious that Screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether is trying to incorporate authentic feelings into her writing while being edgy. She constructs Adam and Emma into people we know or have been involved with in our lives at one point or another. The problem is Meriwether forgets to add redeeming qualities to these main characters or, for that matter, any reason for one to root for these two. Movie goers won’t want to root for a sappy push over like Adam or an indecisive twit like Emma. Because of their drastic attitude differences, the relationship is hard to watch mostly because these two people are absolutely stubborn. The audience just knows this “friends with benefits” plan is a train wreck waiting to happen. Again, this may be something audiences can connect to because these relationship events happen but it’s not necessarily fun to watch in movie form. That’s a huge problem in a film that’s labeled as a “romantic comedy”.
As much as the Emma character is an irritating flip-flop, Portman is able to take what little material is given to her and almost fully redeem the character towards the film’s climax. Emma comes to a heartbreaking realization when this certain event takes place and while on the phone talking to her sister Katie, played by Olivia Thirlby, Portman utters lines with saddening staccato while expressing physically how upset she is. Throughout the movie, we don’t really understand why Emma is acting in this extreme but Portman takes one line of dialogue during this realization and is able to sum up her entire character in that reading over the phone. The character still isn’t charismatic or even likeable but Portman adds a level of believability that helps flesh out this potentially two-dimensional jerk. I don’t want to spoil the specific line; let’s see if the average movie goer picks up on it.
What’s really frustrating is that the film is focusing on the wrong relationship. While Adam and Emma are working out their differences, Adam’s friend Eli, played by Jake Johnson, and Emma’s friend Patrice, played by Greta Gerwig, start to fall for one another. The audience gets to see exchanges between those two characters and sense that element of romance that is missing from the Adam/Emma debacle. We light up when we see Eli and Patrice eyeing and dancing with each other. It’s a couple that deserves more focus.
No Strings Attached isn’t devoid of laughs; awfully close though. The supporting players are very well cast; stealing practically every scene they star in. Take Emma’s nurse friends, for instance. Mindy Kaling isn’t given that many lines of dialogue to work with but is able to make a lasting impression. It’s Greta Gerwig who is able to take each line and spin each delivery into gold. With Gerwig’s ability to add realism and her very sharp comedic timing, she’s the character we think of immediately when we think of this movie.
The film does a good job being consistently connected and not feeling like a bunch of segments filled with gags. However, during the end credits, there are short scenes that don’t match the continuity of the story. We see characters talking about hooking up, characters being attracted to one another even though they had no consistent relation during the movie. We even get a scene where one of the characters is giving birth! These short sequences feel like deleted scenes Reitman and Editor Dana E. Glauberman couldn’t bear to let go of making these tail end scenes feel like unnecessary padding.
There is a lot of material that can be played with in regards to open relationships. The film can deal with familiar, personal personas but the film mustn’t forget what genre it is. If Reitman was aiming for a dramedy, there has to be some sort of a balance between the cinematic styles. At the end of the day though, No Strings Attached should’ve been something much more.