Can men and women traverse the territory between friendship and sex without love getting in the way? Or is the fabled “sex buddies” or “friends with benefits” arrangement merely a myth? The question is by no means new to the realm of film and television yet continues to be explored in countless efforts, with TV’s Sex And The City and Scrubs touching upon it, as well as the cinematic works of Kevin Smith (most notably Zack And Miri Make A Porno). Mumblecore hit Humpday pondered the topic from a completely different angle (and without the involvement of women), and Love And Other Drugs threw illness into the mix. Now No Strings Attached considers the concept with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher playing the central duo, in the first of two 2011 releases to delve into the intricacies and intimacies attached to casual couplings (soon to be followed by Friends With Benefits with Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake).
Strong-willed Emma (Portman, Black Swan) and happy-go-lucky Adam (Kutcher, Killers first meet at summer camp at the age of fourteen, with the former on the receiving end of an awkward proposition from the latter. Ten years later, they cross paths at a college frat party, and then again – courtesy of their friends Patrice (Greta Gerwig, Greenberg) and Eli (Jake Johnson, Get Him To The Greek) – at a market four years after that. Another year passes before the pair are brought together, with Adam drunkenly dialling Emma after discovering that his TV star father (Kevin Kline, Definitely, Maybe) is dating his ex (Ophelia Lovibond, Nowhere Boy). Giving in to their mutual attraction, they take their relationship to the physical level, quickly deciding to keep it casual rather than head into romance. As their liaisons increase in frequency and friendship blooms between them, Adam’s feelings start to develop into something more, whilst Emma is determined to keep her distance.
The success of a rom-com lies in the ability to sell a suspension of belief to the audience. From the first time we glimpse the poster to the seemingly endless stream of identical genre entries, we know that the leads are going to get together. It is partly the reason behind the continuing success of the films, with mainstream audiences genuinely wanting to “feel good” as the credits roll. Yet we are also asked to believe that some convoluted and often self-created obstacle – in this case, a set of easily broken rules that “stops” the characters from being truly together – is realistic enough to keep apart two obvious matches for 108 minutes or so. While No Strings Attached does little to sidestep these cut and paste guidelines for romantic comedies, it does inject enough ‘risqué’ humour and warmth (thanks largely to the two capable leads) to set it apart from the avalanche of cinematic candy that has been rotting our brains for decades. Kutcher is an experienced generic ‘guy’ is these type of films, yet while Portman has dipped in from time to time, coming off the back of the emotionally powerful performance in Black Swan, this smacks of an attempt to soften her image for wider audiences.
The humour in No Strings Attached is certainly more (or less, depending on your point of view) sophisticated than genre stable-mates. However, it doesn’t go far enough: the humour in the Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith brand of comedies takes no prisoners, and tends to call a spade a spade (or a cock a cock if you prefer). While crude, it certainly takes the edge off the sugary story at the heart of the film. While No Strings Attached certainly makes a noble attempt at adding some the frank humour found in the aforementioned hits, including a menstruation mix-tape and the repeated sexual encounters, it still errs on the side of coyness with phrases like “eat kitty” and of course, no actual nudity. Yet despite this, and the cheddar-factory conclusion, this is one couple we don’t mind accompanying on their journey to the inevitable.
The Reel Bits: No Strings Attached comes with no frills attached either. Despite the saccharine climax, the genuinely likeable cast and smutty humour lift this several notches above the torrent of rom-coms currently infesting our screens.
No Strings Attached is released on February 10, 2011 in Australia by Paramount Pictures.