“Adam, you’re wonderful. And if you’re lucky, you’re never gonna see me again.” With this pronouncement, Emma (Natalie Portman) makes clear she’s cursed with the rom-com version of self-awareness. Her caution to Adam (Ashton Kutcher) suggests the particular gimmick of No Strings Attached, namely, it’s the girl who’s avoiding commitment instead of the boy. But Emma’s self-understanding is only that: she can’t get, much less acknowledge, the movie world she lives in, a world where gimmicks are only alternate routes to the same end. Resistance, as they say, is futile.
Emma’s route is indicated in the first scene of Ivan Reitman’s film, set “15 years ago” at a sleepaway camp. Her teenaged self tries to comfort Adam’s teenaged self over his parents’ imminent divorce by patting his back and noting, “People aren’t meant to be together forever.” She can’t know that he doesn’t care, of course, that his interest at this moment is pretty much the opposite of her comfort: “Can I finger you?” he asks.
It’s a punchline serving as subterfuge, for as it turns out, Adam 15 years later is not that standard issue boy at all, but is instead seeking a relationship (even if he doesn’t know it yet). The movie intimates that he’s rebelling against his glib and narcissistic father, a TV sitcom star named Alvin (Kevin Kline), while Emma both yearns for and resists marriage (in whatever form) because her father dies young. Emma’s dilemma is generic and then some: feeling abandoned and anxious, she throws herself into her medical career (rendered here as people in scrubs, walking in hospital hallways). Adam’s distractions are ostensibly more mundane: he works as a PA on a High School Musical sort of show and aspires to write scripts for same. His own conflict is pictured as he stands with his colleagues watching the kids dance and sing: as everyone else nods and smiles to the sugary music, he looks awkward.
Apparently, it’s this similar but different sense of not quite belonging that makes Emma and Adam so right for one another, though she fights that realization hard and long. Their initial agreement to be “sex buddies” provides for a couple of montages—phone calls and texts, cars and hospital storage rooms—so you can see they look great together and even get along too, with lots of laughing amid the limbs entangling. But the agreement is so plainly not what they think it is—it is in fact the means by which they will achieve commitment, i.e., complete the marriage plot—that these ostensibly bright folks look slow-witted.
If predictability is the perennial problem of formula, it is also its pleasure: as viewers know what’s coming, they might feel smart. But the scheme is more effective when the characters are smart too (like, say, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant). It’s too easy to feel impatient while you’re waiting for your points of identification to catch up, as when Adam has to be distracted by a coworker, Lucy (Lake Bell), who in turn has to be made so obviously not right for him that she becomes (unfairly) irritating. Emma endures inane distractions and incitements as well, as when her younger sister (Olivia Thirlby) announces she’s getting married or when her mother advises her to confess her frailties. And sometimes the movie just capitulates utterly to creakiness, as when a Ken-doll-looking doctor Sam (Ben Lawson) not only assumes he’s the man Emma will marry but also informs Adam of his plans.
The film can’t justify why Emma or Adam are hanging out with this guy, or why Adam takes him at all seriously, but that’s how things go in rom-com-land. That is, Adam is now pressed into action, seeking more emphatically to demonstrate exactly how “wonderful” he is, to match Emma’s early (and groundless) assessment. He’s encouraged as well by his best friends, including Ludacris as Wallace, bar owner and resident wit, as she is also advised by roommates Shira (Mindy Kaling) and Patrice (Greta Gerwig), whose observation that Emma always “finds problems” with men who seem perfect is followed by a foot-stomping country-rockish performance of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”
The joke here is part wordplay, part visual juxtaposition, and again, part presumption that viewers get angles characters miss. If this is formula, it benefits from sustained attention to timing and detail and energy (again, see: screwball), and the sporadic rhythms of No Strings Attached don’t manage either. Emma and Adam seem pitched in random directions as you know exactly where they’re headed: he’s adorable (his mixtape for her period-blues includes Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” and U2’s “Bloody Sunday”) and she’s awesome (she chides Alvin for announcing he and Adam’s vacuous ex want to have a baby together), and then they’re not (she’s fretting about her mom’s new boyfriend and he’s making fun of Sam’s Prius).
But even as you’re wishing they’d just get on with it, you’re also not. Because the end of the rom-commy marriage plot is always the same, reinforcing conventions and elbowing aside alternatives. You get the feeling that Adam and Emma might have imagined something else, but well, that would have been futile.