By Mat DeKinder
I think we as a society can all agree that Ashton Kutcher is way more famous than he has any right to be. Now I am not trying to argue that he is completely devoid of talent as an actor, but if fame was directly related to a body of work, you would be following the likes of John Turturro and Stanley Tucci on Twitter long before you thought to look up Kutcher.
But if we can separate the man from the tabloids for a moment, we can see that Kutcher has established a nice little career giving middle-of-the-road performances in bland (occasionally horrible) romantic comedies.
This is why it is no surprise at all to see Kutcher headlining the paint-by-numbers romantic comedy “No Strings Attached.” What is surprising is how enjoyable the first half of this film is, thanks entirely to the rest of the cast’s Herculean effort to conjure three-dimensional characters out of thin air.
Now sure, the back half of the movie completely collapses under the weight of the genre’s conventions, but hey, a quality hour of movie is roughly twice what I was expecting so I consider that a victory right there.
The plot of “No Strings Attached” is so tired it needs a spa vacation and about 36 hours of sleep, but the basic crux of the whole thing is that two friends attempt to have a sexual relationship without becoming romantically involved. Failure ensues.
The salvation of this entire enterprise is that one-half of this relationship is in the hands of Natalie Portman. While 2011 will be (likely) remembered in Portman’s career for snagging an Academy Award for her performance in “Black Swan,” some deference should be paid to the workman-like, turd-polishing effort she gives in “No Strings Attached.”
Portman plays Emma, an emotionally-closeted, type-A personality who spends most of the movie pushing back against Kutcher’s warm and big-hearted Adam.
In the hands of a Kristen Stewart or Katherine Heigl, it is likely that Emma would be so unlikeable and off-putting that it would be all you could do to keep from crawling up on screen and choking her.
Instead Portman manages to turn the character’s massive personality flaws into cute little foibles and somehow the result is a desirable human being. Such a high degree of acting is unquestionably more than this movie deserves.
The rest of “No Strings Attached” is peppered with odd situations and quirky characters that serve no real purpose other than being interesting for interesting’s sake. Again, the supporting cast works miracles with what little they are given.
Kevin Kline shows up as Adam’s mid-life-crisis-laden father, a former sit-com actor who winds up sleeping with one of Adam’s ex-girlfriends. Adam and Emma’s circle of friends include brief but solid turns from Greta Gerwig (“Greenberg”), Olivia Thirlby (“Juno”), Mindy Kaling (“The Office”) and the one, the only Ludacris.
“No Strings Attached” was directed by Ivan Reitman who hasn’t made a good movie in about 20 years. Of course he did direct “Ghostbusters,” and that little piece of perfection alone should allow him to make bad movies for the rest of his life if he so chooses.
Reitman doesn’t exactly mine a lot of laughs out of this script, but he does keep the movie from careening completely off the track and he did somehow convince Portman to sign on, so I guess he deserves some credit for that.
Look, “No Strings Attached” is not a particularly good movie. But at the same time it is not a particularly horrible one either and romantic comedy fans could certainly find a worse way to spend a Friday night.
Even Kutcher, freed from having to do any of the heavy lifting, is likeable and charming. In my perfect world would this movie catapult him to the level of fame he currently enjoys? No. But M. Emmet Walsh would hear him snapping at his heels.
“No Strings Attached” is rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material.
Mat DeKinder was once described as the “Jackie Moon of film critics” by a guy named Nate.