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.”