No Strings Attached
By Carl Kozlowski
January 20, 2011
Throughout the history of the Western world, men traditionally called the shots in relationships and women were the ones who demurely followed their lead. People also seemed to meet up, fell in love or at least tolerated each other, and get married in short order before supposedly living happily ever after.
Of course, it was probably never really that simple. And man, how times have changed, with women calling the shots just as often as guys. Women probably initiate one-night stands as often as men now, and cohabitation enables more and more people to delay settling down until later and later in their lives.
But the new romantic comedy No Strings Attached takes a look at one other phenomenon of our sex-saturated society: the concept of friends with benefits, in which a man and woman try to eschew all romantic connections and obligations and instead try to just be friends who happen to hook up together. And because it’s a romantic comedy, it tries to ask if it’s really possible to have that arrangement without falling in love.
Following the friendship of Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) from their first awkward meeting as young teens at summer camp through their late 20s, Strings starts off with a fun and energetic zip and tangy dialogue before devolving into a pat and predictable second half. Adam works as a writers’ assistant on a Glee-style TV show, while Emma is a doctor who lives with a couple of other doctor friends.
When Adam awakens naked and groggy on the doctors’ couch after meeting Emma for a night of too much drinking, he can’t figure out who he might have slept with. But just when he figures out that nothing happened with anyone, his private conversation with Emma in her room winds up crossing exactly that line—and she wants to keep the relationship of sex with no emotional attachments.
This might seem like a dream situation for a guy like Adam, but he’s grown up as the son of a playboy TV sitcom star (Kevin Kline) and knows he doesn’t want to follow in his dad’s pathetically shallow footsteps. As he starts to fall for Emma, he and the audience have to come to terms with a sad secret from her past.
Strings has a lot of sexual humor and numerous hookups in the early part of the film, although they are mostly shown quickly in montage. Buried under the predictable tedium of its second half, it ultimately has a fairly traditional message about it all. It’s something it oddly shares with its obvious forebear Sex and the City, which asked some of the same questions: Should a woman act like a stereotypical, emotionally unattached guy—and can they manage to have a deep physical connection without falling in love? In both cases, the characters realize you can't—which is something Christians already know.
Kutcher and Portman are perfectly cast in their roles, as he continues his string of goofily appealing guy roles and she displays a fun sexiness that has been thus far lacking in her screen persona. First-time screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether also creates an assortment of fun supporting roles that are well-played, particularly by Lake Bell as a fellow writers’ assistant on Adam’s sitcom.
Director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes, Twins) tackles a romantic comedy for the first time in his career and breaks a distressing string of failed sci-fi comedies like Evolution and My Super Ex-Girlfriend that relied more on special effects than solid writing. But as Adam and Emma’s relationship gets more complicated, he and Meriwether fall off the rails as the film just can’t sustain its charms.
There’s simply not enough at stake here to keep audiences invested in their relationship with these characters. Ultimately, No Strings Attached falls victim to a problem that probably besets all friends with benefits: if you can’t care about where things go, you have to ask yourself ... why bother at all?