On the plus side, you have co-star Natalie Portman, hot off the success of "Black Swan," and director Ivan Reitman, whose successes include "Ghost Busters," "Stripes," and "Meatballs." On the minus side you have another of today's stock romantic comedies, with a sprinkling of raunch, and you put up with co-star Ashton Kutcher ("That '70s Show," "Dude, Where's My Car," "My Boss's Daughter," "What Happens in Vegas").
For Ms. Portman, after the heavy drama 2010's "Black Swan," the romantic-comedy escapades of "No Strings Attached" must have seemed like a good idea. It appears to have been her attempt to show off her versatility as an actress (and as much of her body as a watered-down R-rated film would allow). Or maybe director Darren Aronofsky meant "Black Swan" as a raunchy sex comedy, so "No Strings Attached" wasn't much of a leap. Who knows.
Here's the thing: For many years there was a distinct dividing line between traditional romantic comedy and conventional farce-type comedy. Then came more-outrageous sex comedies like "There's Something About Mary" and "American Pie," and they changed the rules. With "No Strings Attached" we get the inevitable combination of the two: a raunchy romantic comedy. The problem is that the two don't mix very well, especially when the filmmakers dilute the raunch, make the romance intentionally unromantic, and provide almost no laughs. It makes for a film that isn't exactly awful, just dreadfully dull.
Director Reitman and first-time screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether set the film's tone from the beginning by introducing it with a celebration of sex, booze, and loud, pounding music. They let up on the booze after a while, but the sex and the music are unrelenting. Then we meet the principals, Emma Kurtzman (Portman) and Adam Franklin (Kutcher), as teenagers at summer camp, with Adam attempting to hit on Emma, and Emma rejecting him. Flash forward a few years, and they meet again, with essentially the same results. And finally we get to the present, where Emma is a doctor, Adam is a TV production assistant, and they encounter one another once more. This time, however, there is a minor spark between them. Very minor. She's a pretty cold fish, you see. She's not good at relationships and doesn't want one, although she does like sex and wants it. He's just perpetually horny, so the two strike an agreement: They'll be friends for sex, anytime, anywhere, with no commitment, no strings attached. OK, you can how that's going to end up. It's just a matter of waiting 107 minutes for it to happen.
Aside: Is there a reason Aston Kutcher is as (presumably) popular as he is? Although he seems to be a decent, friendly fellow, he is not particularly charismatic, nor is his comedic timing extraordinary. To me, he seems like just another TV guy.
I said this was a raunchy romantic comedy. The filmmakers limit the raunch, however, to a stream of dirty words; no nudity and no outright vulgar sex. Further, they limit the romance because the two characters don't want to get romantically involved and, as I've said, one of them is a pretty cool customer, anyway. There is essentially no chemistry between the leads, and there isn't supposed to be. So that leaves the comedy, right? No such luck. The funniest scene in the film is when Adam and Emma meet Adam's father, a big TV star (played by Kevin Kline, whom the movie wastes) at a restaurant, after the father announces he's marrying his son's former girlfriend. That scene lasts a minute or two, and there isn't much else. Besides, the scene, like the film itself, ends much too seriously for a romance or a comedy.
And what's with all the characters talking dirty for no rational purpose? I mean, in many instances the dialogue might actually have been clever or witty if it were not for the foul, juvenile language involved. I can only assume it's to pander to a young audience that expects such words from a movie about young people. It's the same with Reitman populating practically every shot with individuals in their twenties and early thirties. Emma and Adam are sitting at an outdoor cafe, and every person at every table around them looks young and beautiful. What are the odds? Again, pandering to the audience? Sure thing, and did I mention the music? Exactly.
The only actors in the film who appear to be over thirty are Talia Balsam and Brian Dierker in a brief scene as Emma's mother and new dad; the aforementioned Kevin Kline as Adam's father; and, as a doctor at Emma's hospital, Cary Elwes. Cary Elwes? Of "The Princess Bride" and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights"? He has about two minutes of total screen time and about three words of dialogue. Did the filmmakers mean it as a gag? Is it a tongue-in-cheek cameo? If so, who would know? Elwes wears a beard and is almost unrecognizable. I guess I missed the joke.
The movie started life with the title "F... Friends." Knowing that wouldn't get by the censors, it wound up as "No Strings Attached." I'm not sure it was an improvement. The movie is formula all the way, despite its only innovative angle, the smuttiness added to the romance. But if the filmmakers were going for the crudeness of an "American Pie," why not have just gone all the way with it? Beyond the sex without commitment business and the constant profanity, there's nothing else, nothing outrageous, nothing shocking, nothing funny.
Besides, why make a romantic comedy where the main characters are so unpleasant and unlikable? Emma is so reserved and distant, she's like an icicle; and Adam is such a knucklehead, it's hard to care what happens to him. So what if they fall in love or not?
Yet despite all it's got going against it, "No Strings Attached" is not horrible or offensive; it's not the kind of film you really hate or even mildly dislike very much. It seems more like a routine television sitcom with a healthy dose of naughty words thrown in, a show you might watch in reruns late at night to fall asleep but not one you want to chuck your shoe at.
The Paramount video engineers preserve the film's original aspect ratio, 2.35:1, using an MPEG-4/AVC encode and a dual-layer BD50. The Blu-ray transfer quality varies from average to very good, depending on the scene. Some shots look quite sharply defined, others look fairly soft. There doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to it, but most of the time it's more than acceptable. Colors show up looking deep and rich, sometimes too dark, perhaps, like skin tones, but good enough. The screen, too, is very clean, so the picture is easy to take.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mainly reproduces the film's soundtrack music; otherwise, it's all center-channel, midrange dialogue. In the music, there is a reasonably wide front-channel stereo spread, but not much bloom in the rear or side channels. Nor is there much or any surround anywhere else, either. Frequency response, dynamics, and such are not too exciting; they're just adequate for the occasion.
Disc one of this two-disc Combo Edition contains the feature film and the usual bonus items. The first extra is an audio commentary by director Ivan Reitman. Following that, we find three featurettes: "Sex Friends: Getting Together," a twenty-minute making-of promo; "Inside the Sassy Halls of Secret High," eleven minutes on the TV show within the movie; and "Modern Love: The Do's and Don'ts," eight minutes. Then, we get six deleted scenes totaling about eleven minutes; and several alternative story line scenes, about three minutes.
The extras conclude with fifteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and English audio descriptions.
Disc two contains a DVD of the feature film, plus a digital copy of the film for PC or Mac, the offer expiring May 10, 2012. A flimsy plastic Eco-case encloses the two discs.
If you find Ashton Kutcher's films indispensable, if you found "Valentine's Day" the best romance since "Titanic," or if you just like looking at Natalie Portman, you may take a fancy to "No Strings Attached." Otherwise, you might find it a bore.