No Strings Attached: Black mark, not Black Swan

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UNTITLED IVAN REITMAN PROJECT

By Matt Brunson

NO STRINGS ATTACHED

*1/2

DIRECTED BY Ivan Reitman

STARS Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher

Last fall's underrated Love & Other Drugs was a movie of two parts, with the pieces as segregated as oil and vinegar floating in the same dipping dish. The frank and realistic relationship between the characters played by Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal was given its own space to breathe and grow, and the more sophomoric aspects of the film (for example, the scenes involving Gyllenhaal's boorish brother) could easily be trimmed from the mind like so much steak fat. But such a delicate operation isn't possible with No Strings Attached, which spends its entire running time slathering its fine points with so many idiotic additives that the whole enterprise ends up spoiled.

The script by Elizabeth Meriwether starts with a good idea for a thought-provoking movie for adults: An emotionally blocked woman, Emma (Natalie Portman), and a perpetually peppy nice guy, Adam (Ashton Kutcher), find themselves attracted to each other, but because she's afraid of commitment, they agree to function only as "fuck buddies," satisfying each other's carnal urges whenever the need arises. No Strings Attached could have been fascinating had it made an honest attempt at exploring whether such a union could really work — think of it as a Last Tango in Paris for the Internet generation, with cell phones instead of butter as the story's chief accessory. But instead of Brando and Bertolucci, we have Kutcher and Ivan Reitman (who stopped mattering as a director after his partnership with Bill Murray in the 1980s), and the result is the usual rom-com ditherings, with the familiar assortment of stock supporting characters (annoying clod, check; cool black guy, check; sassy female roommates, check; lovable gay dude, check; and on and on) and one morally sound, preordained ending that again demonstrates the motto of hedonistic Hollywood is, "Do as I film, not as I do."

True, Hathaway and Gyllenhaal often kept each other at emotional bay in Love & Other Drugs, but there were legitimate reasons for their distance. The reasons for Emma's standoffishness are never credible or even really established (here's a woman who glibly refers to her father's funeral as "some stupid thing I have to [attend]," although there's no evidence that he was a rotten parent worthy of such a crack), which strips the central relationship of its credibility almost from the start. At least Portman's natural thespian talent keeps her character watchable; that's more than can be said about the limited Kutcher, though his presence certainly doesn't undermine a movie as trivial as this one.

There's been chatter that No Strings Attached might be Portman's Norbit, a reference to the fact that Eddie Murphy's critically reviled comedy opened when he was the Oscar frontrunner for his supporting turn in Dreamgirls (Little Miss Sunshine's Alan Arkin ended up taking home the award). I think this picture is too bland and forgettable to hurt Portman's Black Swan Oscar campaign; at the same time, I imagine Portman's primary competition, The Kids Are All Right's Annette Bening, will be reading the negative notices with glee.

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