The margins of Ivan Reitman’s scrappy new romantic comedy—yes, the Ivan Reitman of Ghostbusters fame—are populated with a bunch of underground film darlings: There’s Greta Gerwig, queen of the mumblecore movement (and star of last year’s excellent Greenberg), there’s Olivia Thirlby from Juno, there’s Jake Johnson from Paper Heart.
And it occurred to me that if, instead of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, the leads of this film were, say, Anton Yelchin and Kat Dennings, this whole project might have seemed like some charming, if indulgently overlong indie project.
The script, by Elizabeth Meriweather, has a hip, winking, smart-girl vibe to it. I giggled for example, when our hero Adam (Kutcher) made a “period mix” for his would-be girlfriend Emma (Portman) that included “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Bleeding Love,” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” And I laughed even harder when Emma’s best friend and fellow medical intern Patrice (Greta Gerwig), also on her period, moaned, “It’s like a crime scene in my pants!” (Okay, not exactly highbrow stuff, but still. . .) I also loved the scene where Adam, awkwardly unsure of how to react after he and Emma first have sex, shows up at the hospital where she works with a “Congrats!” balloon.
That first night of sex was apparently great, so Emma proposes that they become friends with benefits. She makes rules: No jealousy, no meaningful eye contact across rooms, no listing each other as emergency contacts. Adam jumps at the idea: What guy wouldn’t want such an arrangement? But, inevitably, feelings creep into the equation.
All of this begs the question: Why is Emma so commitment-phobic? Why exactly isn’t she interested in the gorgeous sweetheart who’s also a tiger in the sack? The filmmakers make some very half-hearted attempt to explain it—Emma felt a need to be strong and independent after her father died—but it just seems like a plot contrivance.
Both Kutcher and Portman are appealing and sexy as the leads, but in the end, I liked those marginal players best. Besides the hilarious Gerwig, there’s Mindy Kaling as Emma’s equally randy roommate and Lake Bell as a brainy co-worker of Adam’s (he’s a production assistant for a High School Musical-esque TV show) who can’t help but blurt out every last thing on her mind. (“This is happening!” she exclaims, when Adam, on a forced break from Emma, kisses her).
A few careful edits (the film is about 20 minutes too long) and a better understanding of Portman’s motivations and they could’ve really been onto something here. Still, don’t let the presence of Ashton Kutcher fool you: No Strings Attached is a rom-com with an actual brain in its head.