'No Strings Attached': From Raunchy to Romantic

A contemporary couple finds a traditional answer to a modern question.

No Strings Attached

Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Natalie Portman, Kevin Kline, Lake Bell
Writers: Elizabeth Meriwether and Mike Samonek
Release date: 2011-05-10

Can a man and a woman sleep together occasionally and still maintain a shallow and unemotional “friends with benefits” relationship? This question permeates No Strings Attached—a film that begins with a bawdy, unconventional narrative and ends as a typical hearts-and-flowers romantic comedy.

The story starts during the '90s, when preteens Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) are at summer camp and the appropriately-chosen song, “I Wanna Sex You Up” plays in the background. Adam reveals himself from the outset to be a sensitive soul by lamenting his parents’ pending divorce, and Emma quickly shows her true colors. She coldly responds to his need for sympathy by saying that she’s “not an affectionate person”.

As time progresses, Adam and Emma keep running into each other and seem destined to have a relationship of one kind or another. Adam is a college student; Emma is enrolled at MIT; and her emotional detachment is clear when she invites Adam to her father’s funeral as if she’s taking him to a Sunday afternoon picnic. Inexplicably, Adam has feelings for Emma; but she warns him that he shouldn’t.

A few years later, Emma is a medical resident at a hospital, and Adam is an aspiring writer working as an assistant on a TV show similar to Glee. She appears successful and confident, while he is still awkwardly struggling to achieve his career goals without the influence of his father, Alvin (Kevin Kline), a has-been actor who basks in the fading glow of his former success and behaves like a relic from the freewheeling '70s. Alvin tries to be more of a friend than a father to Adam, but proves himself to be neither when he takes up with Adam’s former girlfriend. This sends Adam into a wounded tailspin, and he spends a drunken night in search of a hookup.

The next morning, Adam awakens in Emma’s apartment surrounded by her roommates, unsure as to whether he has been intimate with any of them. He soon discovers that he hasn’t, with any of them, but this changes after Emma invites him to her bedroom. Their sexual encounter deeply affects Adam, who is immediately smitten with Emma. But the feeling isn’t mutual, and when they bump into each other outside of a restaurant and he sheepishly tells her that she’s “beautiful”, she looks at him with scorn and walks away.

Adam should walk away, too. In fact, he should run—but he doesn’t. Emma proposes that they have meaningless sex whenever the mood strikes, and although this goes against his character and his desires, Adam agrees.

But why? Why would Adam betray his needs in exchange for someone as empty and callous as Emma? These questions, and the lack of a solid back-story to develop its main characters, are glaring shortcomings in the script. Emma’s poor treatment of Adam makes her impossible to like, and although her compassionate side and the reasons for her hard-heartedness are revealed toward the end of the film, it’s not enough. It also doesn’t provide a sufficient explanation of her previous behavior, nor does it completely redeem her. Adam is sympathetic throughout, and although he's given more of a history, the reason he accepts Emma’s deficiencies is never clear.

Adam eventually has a chance at a relationship with a neurotic co-worker, Lucy (Lake Bell), who is clumsy, considerate, and the complete opposite of Emma. Bell executes this role with a refreshing subtlety that elevates her character to the most amusing in the cast. Kevin Kline, always remarkably versatile, also provides a good performance, and the handsome Kutcher and the lovely Portman do the best they can with the material given to them—which is sometimes funny but often cringe-worthy.

The comedic content of the script is weak, and it is also flawed by several jokes that strain to be edgy and smart but are merely crass, juvenile, and not at all funny. Why an actress of Portman’s caliber would agree to star in a movie that requires her to deliver humorless, grade-school lines such as “You look like a pumpkin, bitch,” is a mystery.

The first part of the story reaches for laughs and sexiness but falls flat; however, the film improves halfway through, when Adam finally realizes that Emma is “messed up”, and her character slowly develops, grows, uncovers her past, and subsequently becomes more human and sympathetic. This change reveals the main characters’ thoughts about whether “sex friends” actually have any true benefits.

Although much of the film is not up to par with its talented cast, there are some amusing moments in the story, and the ending almost makes up for the beginning. No Strings Attached is likely to entertain those seeking a lighthearted comedy—as long as they aren’t expecting hilarity.

The DVD contains enjoyable extras, including deleted scenes, scenes from an alternate storyline, and interviews with Kutcher, Portman, Kline, director Ivan Reitman, and writer Elizabeth Meriwether. During these interviews, No Strings Attached is accurately defined as a “reverse romantic comedy,” in which the “story starts with a kiss rather than ends with a kiss.”


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.