Having won a Golden Globe and a variety of critics' association honors for her performance as a disturbed ballerina in The Black Swan, Natalie Portman seems a shoo-in for a best actress Oscar. The new and, alas, negligible romantic comedy No Strings Attached, isn't exactly a warm-up for Oscars' big prize, but it probably won't do anything to diminish Portman's glow.
No Strings Attached isn't much of a movie, but consider this: Portman's playing a role that might have gone to such rom-com divas as Drew Barrymore, Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston. If you see the movie, think about what it might have been had any of those actresses taken Portman's place.
Proving herself an able enough comic actress, Portman holds the movie together as it zips through a variety of situations that are designed to delay the inevitable union of on-again/off-again lovers.
No Strings marks the first movie to be directed by Ivan Reitman (father of Jason) since 2006's My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Reitman's spry direction and screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether's mildly off-color script keep No Strings from feeling precisely like every other rom-com that's been cluttering the nation's multiplexes.
Meriwether builds her R-rated script around a provocative question: Is it possible for two young people to carry on a torrid sexual affair without wanting to deepen their relationship?
That brings me to Ashton Kutcher, the movie's other marquee name. Kutcher piles on his all-too-familiar sheepish charm, and, at one point, bounces his naked butt across the screen. When it comes to rom-coms, he may be the male equivalent of the Barrymores, Heigls and Anistons, which means he's entirely too predictable.
Here's how the story goes: Portman's Emma, a medical resident at a Los Angeles hospital, proposes a sex-only affair to Kutcher's Adam, an assistant on a TV sitcom. Scorched by a large helping of paternal humiliation - his dad (Kevin Kline) is dating one of his ex-girlfriends -- Adam agrees to Emma's proposition.
Adam and Emma go at it with enthusiasm until Adam begins craving some real intimacy. The emotionally defended Emma doesn't want to detract from her consuming schedule. She's also terrified of commitment.
No Strings is not without sour notes, the loudest of them sounded by Kline, who starred in Reitman's 1993 comedy, Dave. Kline plays Kutcher's father, a faded TV star whose embarrassingly randy behavior pushes the dejected Adam into a drunken evening during which he kicks off his relationship with Emma.
Gifted a comic actor as he is, Kline can't entirely remove the odor of unpleasantness from the role of an older man who craves the fawning attentions of younger women.
There's an increasingly familiar quality to its overall arc, but Meriwether's script makes room for some decent one-liners. Too bad it doesn't allow for more significant contributions from the supporting cast. The only minor character who gets any decent play is Adam's co-workers, an obsessive talker played by Lake Bell.
I'm told that folks who sleep together but maintain every other form of distance are called "friends with benefits." Think of No Strings as a mediocre movie with benefits, most of them due to Portman who - up until the script calls for her to suffer - seems to be having loads of fun. Why not? Someone had to have a good time.