Despite what you might think from all the movies about princes falling in love with college students and mortal enemies forced to raise babies together, the key to a good romantic comedy is relatability. Do this dude and this chick seem like actual people who might actually fall in love with each other? Are their romantic moments full of real affection, their tense moments full of real anguish? If the answer to those questions is “yes,” then it really doesn’t matter what plot contortions arise to throw them together or keep them apart. We’ll buy into it because we want to see real people forge real emotional connections.
For about 45 minutes, No Strings Attached actually has some of that feeling of reality, which is surprising for a movie starring Ashton Kutcher. He plays Adam, a production assistant on a Glee-esque TV show and the son of a beloved former TV star (Kevin Kline, amping up the sleaze). Adam has an instant attraction to hard-working doctor Emma (Natalie Portman), but she insists that she doesn’t want to be in a relationship and proposes that they instead keep their relationship purely physical. Obviously that isn’t going to work out, and obviously they are going to fall in love, but before the movie starts grinding through the standard rom-com gears, it has a genuine feel for the giddiness of finding a new romance, even if it’s just about having sex in all sorts of new places. Kutcher is a bit of a blank, but Portman brings depth to her performance, making Emma more than just a stock collection of neuroses and wacky friends.
Speaking of wacky friends, movies like this rely heavily on supporting characters for comic relief as the story starts to get heavy, and veteran director Ivan Reitman (working in a more low-key mode than he’s used to) assembles an impressive crew of players around Kutcher and Portman, including Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, Abby Elliott, Olivia Thirlby and Lake Bell. All of their powers combined can’t save the movie’s dreary second half, though, as Emma and Adam go through the motions of getting too close, fighting, breaking up and getting back together on the way to their predetermined happy ending. The movie goes from breezy and sporadically funny to plodding and dour, and even Portman’s performance loses a bit of its spark. We start out believing in these people, but by the end the whole thing couldn’t feel more fake.