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Non-Review Review: No Strings Attached

If ever there was a movie that demonstrated that you need more than a single great idea to make a good movie, I think No Strings Attached is really it. It basically takes the conventional romantic comedy and reverses the traditional gender roles that have ben reinforced for centuries. Instead of an emotionally-needy woman being paired with a commitment-phobe man, this time we see a free-and-easy lady hooking up with a guy who simply wants more. In fairness to it, it’s a nice way to distinguish the comedy conceptually from the standard rom-com template, but the problem is that it’s executed in the most mundane and half-interested fashion ever, substituting vulgar and crass jokes for actual humour and development.

Is she stringing him along?

Perhaps the best way to describe the film is to suggest that Ivan Reitman and Natalie Portman wandered onto the set of an Ashton Kutcher movie and really tried to make the best of the situation. I don’t mean that to sound as harsh as it probably did, but Kutcher isn’t exactly known for his willingness to take creative risks or venture too far outside his comfort zone, while the other two are renowned for their creative talents and willingness to play with audience expectations. So the result is the most conventional non-conventional romantic comedy you are ever likely to see.

Beyond the basic premise – a couple who decide to have “no strings attached” sex, while the guy wants something more – there’s nothing really original about the film. I have to admit to being a bit surprised at how crass the film was. I mean, it’s no American Pie or anything like that, but it’s still surprisingly graphic and up-front for a romantic comedy clearly aimed at the traditional rom-com market. The problem is that this approach seems to have been adopted merely so the team could push the boundaries, rather than because they had anything important to say about the sex lives of modern twenty-somethings.

Portman's comedy career is flowering...

Between this and Friends With Benefits and Love And Other Drugs (and even, to a lesser extent, Up In The Air), it isn’t even the case that modern free-and-easy sexuality is that much of an unconventional subject anymore. There’s really very little shocking or surprising about the idea of “f**k buddies”, they’re such an accepted part of modern romance (in that I am fairly sure even my dear grandmother knows what the term means, but she’d be sure to add they used a different name in her day). So there’s not too much to be said that hasn’t already been covered.

I’m also a bit disappointed (if not surprised) that the movie effectively takes this lifestyle choice and pretty much condemns it as “wrong.” It’s shockingly conservative, suggesting that the male lead’s idea of a relationship (ie the social norm, courtship, dating commitment) is unequivocably “right” and that the female character needs to overcome her own opinions on her sexuality (which stem from her own issues and are unequivocably “wrong”). It’s a fairly conservative viewpoint, and one which suggests that all ideas of romance must conform to the romantic comedy ideal – which, to be honest, sort of undermines tackling the material in the first place. Still, it’s not as though this is the only movie to adopt such an approach (and one can count the subversions on pretty much one hand), so it’s hard to condemn it for the viewpoint. Still, I’d just like for a romantic comedy to suggest that any relationship outside a conventional one, can work if it’s healthy and loving (which, to be honest, their relationship appears to be).

First Port(man) of call...

Anyway, the point is that the movie is not nearly as unconventional as it might seem, and – once you remove that edge – it loses a lot of its appeal. The jokes are standard and more than a little bit tired. It feels like a waste of a premise to set the movie against the backdrop of a High School Musical or Glee backdrop, given what a more subversive comedy could do with that material. There are a few mometns that work, but not really enough to carry the film.

On the other hand, Portman fares quite well with the material, displaying a skilled comedic timing – reportedly the studio executives were worried about her, and I honestly find that funnier than the movie itself. Herself and Kutcher have relatively little chemistry, but they aren’t the worst screen couple I have ever seen. Kutcher is on auto-pilot. He’s concerned, he’s put down, he’s a little spunky, he swears a bit. He’s like pretty much every character the actor has ever played, he just has more sex on-screen and swears a bit more.

Strange bedfellows...

There’s a genuinely great conventional-gender-roles-reversal romantic comedy waiting to be made, one that will turn our expectations about romantic comedies on their head. The genre takes so much for granted, it’s long overdue for a skewering. However, this can’t help but feel like a wasted opportunity – a great idea taken and watered down to a ridiculous degree.

2 Responses

  1. Many have dubbed Captain America: The First Avenger the best superhero movie of 2011, I’m a little reluctant to give it that title considering how much I enjoyed X-Men: First Class. Still, it is a very good installment, certainly one of the best amongst The Avengers pre-films (it’s between Captain America and Iron Man for that crown). Marvel did a great job closing out the “prequels” for The Avengers, and I’m really excited to see them all come together next year. Good Review! Check out mine when you can!

    • It was good, but I still think – to be controversial – Thor and X-Men were stronger. Although the fondness for Thor seems to be a European thing.

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