No Strings Attached Dir. Ivan Reitman

[Paramount; 2011]

Styles: romantic comedies
Others: Dave, Sex and the City, Friends with Benefits

There’s something perverse about an R-rated movie telegraphing its subject, sex — not only in its title, but also in every inch of its advertising — while containing none of it. That could be read as a horny desire to see Natalie Portman having sex, but if that were the case, I would just go back to Black Swan; besides, Ms. Portman does show up in No Strings Attached wearing enough bras and panties to satisfy any audience member looking for a purely titillating experience. No, I have a problem with No Strings’s refusal to show any real sex because it gives away the essential lie that romantic comedies have anything to offer on the subject of actual romance — or, put another way, that movies about relationships that refuse to delve deeply into them, but that nevertheless insist on shoehorning drama into their well-worn bags of jokes, can still come away having said anything honest at all.

No Strings Attached is a movie that thinks it’s going farther than your average rom-com by attempting to give a little motivation to its characters. Portman’s Emma is a busy, busy doctor who needs a relationship in which she can have sex without commitment — except she’s only doing so to shield herself from the kinds of negative emotions she experienced after the death of her father; Ashton Kutcher’s Adam, an aspiring TV writer and the son of a hack actor, is given to us as the purest example of beefcake good-heartedness — he only wants to do right by people in order to set himself apart from his father, the lecherous old cad.

But these are evasions, half-realized back stories cooked up to try and give these one-dimensional characters some semblance of humanity. The movie doesn’t seem to have the time to follow-up on any of the ostensible reasons why Emma and Adam act the way that they do; it’s too busy laughing at Portman the slut and Kutcher the sensitive frat boy. You can’t help feeling like the more honest route would have been to make a movie that showed two hollow, beautiful people unemotionally going at it for an hour and forty-five minutes. But that would be a different kind of movie altogether.

Of course, there’s no point in making such gripes. No Strings Attached isn’t meant to be read into, and the emotional reasoning that has been invented to give its characters motivation isn’t meant to be interpreted realistically. People who look for some kernel of truth in romantic comedies are practicing wishful thinking: these movies are as hardened and cynical as porn; they just insist on respectability while leaving out the good stuff.

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