Published Jan 21, 2011January is fast becoming the cinematic wasteland for film releases. On one hand, you have the Oscar-baiting movies going into wide releases; on the other, you have offerings of the "romantic comedy" ilk, which have recently provided us with 27 Dresses, Bride Wars and Leap Year. Having trouble remembering them? You can blame some faceless, evil Hollywood executive for turning respectable actresses with surnames like Hathaway, Hudson and Heigl into insipid, two-dimensional pieces of female lifelessness. So then, what is Natalie Portman (the current critics' darling gearing up for a possible Oscar win with Black Swan) doing in No Strings Attached (i.e., the latest release in this dreaded rom-com genre)? To be sure, this movie isn't terrible, but that isn't saying much.
Portman's Dr. Emma Kurtzman enters into a friends-with-benefits arrangement with Ashton Kutcher's Adam Scott because she has an "emotional peanut allergy" to relationships. The requisite rom-com montage shows us the ins and outs of this arrangement: romps in apartments, hospital storerooms and washrooms are permissible, but lying, cuddling and breakfasts are not. Can two friends have a sex-only relationship without feelings getting in the way? Of course not! We can't have a mainstream film with any semblance of emotional honesty in January! Their arrangement turns sour, as Adam is too cute, too earnest and too, well, nice to keep at arm's length. What follows are the usual trials and tribulations leading to the predictable climax.
Clichés aside, No Strings Attached does have some ingenious role reversals: Adam is the serious hopeless romantic; Emma is the carefree, independent commitment-phobe. Portman's current critical status won't be dented by this fluffy movie, as she possesses a knack for comedic timing in an easy, unaffected manner. Liz Merriweather's dialogue, however, benefits the supporting cast the most: Lake Bell (as Adam's colleague in a Glee-like TV show) is adorably neurotic, Greta Gerwig is note-perfect as Emma's deadpan best friend and The Office's Mindy Kaling shines as Emma's sexually-starved roommate.
No Strings Attached would've been much better if it had focused on these talented actresses, turning it into a older, bawdier, girlier Superbad, Sadly, this isn't the case, and so it remains a perfectly respectable, albeit forgettable, cinematic equivalent of a fluffy cupcake in the cold, desolate month of January. (Paramount)