'No Strings Attached' Is a Predictable Rom-com

The agreement to sex without strings is so plainly not what they think it is that these ostensibly bright folks look slow-witted.

No Strings Attached

Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Cary Elwes, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges
Rated: R
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-01-21 (General release)
UK date: 2011-02-25 (General release)

"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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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