No Strings Attached
Film review by: Witney Seibold
The ad campaign for “No Strings Attached” stressed a sex negativity that I was not entirely comfortable with. The premise of Ivan Reitman‘s new film was that a young man and a young woman (Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman) meet cute, and engage in an enthused sexual relationship before going on any proper dates. The film seemed to posit that this kind of relationship cannot last, as one or both of them will inevitably fall in love with the other. The film seemed set up for several predictable endings: either he would fall in lvoe with her, and they would break up over complicated emotional baggage, or, more sappily, they would realize that their sexual relationship is empty and unsatisfying, and would have to turn it into a proper relationship. I didn’t predict that the film would allow the couple to find happiness in their casual, open sexual relationship.
This film is Hollywood halfway acknowledging that dating patterns have changed for this generation. The old romantic tropes, seen in countless romantic comedies, don’t really play as well in a world where young people are more open about their sexuality, gay people can marry (in some states), and women are displaying a great deal of sexual agency. Sure, plenty of people meet cute and go on dates, and abide by old rules of quiet sex relations, but there is a whole generation who engage in a hookup culture of quick flings and easy physicality. This is not the pre-AIDS hedonism of ages past, but a new found (or at least newly expressed) version of sexual power.
So it’s frutrating to see Hollywood try to bend over backwards to acknowledge the new dating rules, while still fitting its characters into the old, bland romcom mold. The characters come to an understanding, but the film is still going to go well out of its way (and spend a good 20 minutes of screentime) making sure they end up together.
All that said, I liked “No Strings Attached” much better than I thought I would. The dialogue is frank and sharp, and some of the throw-offs were hilarious. Ashton Kutcher, an actor who normally grates on me a little bit, was affable and friendly, and Portman, often known for her blankness, comes across as a real person. As is the case with most movies like this, the supporting cast is far more interesting than the leads, and we’re given a very funny collection of best friends that include Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling as the best friends, Lake Bell as a perfectly viable romantic interest, and, bafflingly, Ludacris.
Also in the story is Kutcher’s lothario ex-star father played with aplomb by the indispensable Kevin Kline. Indeed, the film is set into motion when Adam (Kutcher) discovers that his father has begun seeing his ex-girlfriend, played by something called Ophelia Lovibond. Adam calls all of his old female friends in response, seeking nothing more than a cheap, emotionally destructive fling to take his mind off of things. He lands in the apartment of an old acquaintance, Emma (Portman) who is a young doctor, rooming with three doctor roommates. They have a history of nearly hooking up, but never quite doing it, so when given the chance, they fall in bed together. The first scene where Adam and Emma boink is actually kind of sexy for a mainstream Hollywood film.
Adam clearly wants a relationship, but Emma has some groundrules: they will only use one another for sex. She’s a busy professional who doesn’t have the time nor the finance to go out on dates or spend time building up something long-term. More importantly, though, Emma is just not interested in sexual exclusivity, preferring to remain independent. Adam goes along with this because he’s got the hots for her, and hopes to change her mind. No points for guessing whether he does or not.
This goes as you’d predict, and eventually Adam and Emma reach a point where they can continue as a couple, or continue to emotionally stiffarm one another. The film ends on a beautiful note that works well for both of them. But then it ends a second time, allowing for the typical, predictable pabulum Hollywood ending. It was still satisfying, but rang a touch untrue.
Another mention should go to Kline and to Lake Bell for playing such wonderfully well-rounded people. Kline is no mere lothario, but is believable as an inattentive asshole father, who is still charming, the bastard. Lake Bell is a nerdy, nervous type who serves as a secondary romantic interest, makes endless wisecracks about her own awkwardness, and is actually a lot more interesting as a romantic match for Adam than Emma is.
The film is sweet and funny, and is actually kind of lovely. It’s just not the sexual expose is clearly wants to be. It’s a step in the right direction, though.