No Strings Attached
After watching Natalie Portman deliver the performance of a lifetime in Black Swan—with her tightly wound hair, each movement and furrow of the brow carefully choreographed—it’s something of a cathartic release to watch the audience in hysterics as Portman stumbles drunk out of a holiday party in No Strings Attached. As Emma, Portman maintains none of Nina’s verbal repression in Swan, as she bluntly informs a lady who’s frequented the tanning salon a few two many times: “You look like a pumpkin, bitch."
Industry insiders have made much out of how the raunchy, ubiquitous marketing of No Strings Attached might affect Portman’s Oscar chances this season. But No Strings Attached is hardly Portman’s Norbit (Eddie Murphy’s famously terrible comedy, released during the voting period for Murphy’s supporting work in Dreamgirls). Portman is utterly charming as Emma, an MIT grad, doctor-to-be with an “emotional peanut allergy”—her throat closes up at the thought of a committed relationship. Emma is empowered and self-confident, the sort of anti-Katherine Heigl that the rom-com genre desperately needs. She isn’t neurotic, clumsy, and insecure; rather, she’s competent, whip smart, and knows exactly what she wants and deserves. She dives into her job not to avoid focusing on her lonely love life, but because it’s what she wants and fulfills her. Rather than playing the idiosyncratic girl that the funny guy gets to make jokes about, Natalie has as many punch lines as her male counterpart.
The cast supporting Portman is impressive: Ashton Kutcher, as the “always happy” Adam, never gives his character the depth Portman does, but he’s a perfectly suitable and attractive canvas for Portman to develop Emma against. Kevin Kline is amusing as Kutcher’s drugged-out, famous father, although his storyline always feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the film. The real scene stealers in the supporting cast are the lineup of rising female comediennes: Mindy Kaling, Greta Gerwig, Ophelia Lovibond, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, and Abby Elliot are all excellent in smaller parts. It’s fun to watch this collection of actresses on the verge of breaking out.
Before the script was Hollywood-ified, Elizabeth Meriwether’s original screenplay (which has leaked online) was quirkier and edgier—a much more indie feel. Elements of this treatment remain in the film (lines like “It’s gonna be like Sideways, but you’re Paul Giamatti, and I’m the one who actually gets laid”) and generally comprise the best moments in the film. The film’s characters sit around analyzing text messages and reference wall posts, but it just falls short of feeling like the thoroughly modern rom-com it aspires to be…although the “period mix” would really make an excellent Twitter meme.
So Emma and Adam attempt to remain simply “sex friends” with none of the drama of relationships, but, of course, discover how rewarding commitment can be. The film, which starts out so original, devolves into romantic clichés, but that’s okay—it’s kind of nice to just be able to watch Portman for a few hours without gripping the arms of your chair anxiously, wondering how you’ll ever cut your fingernails again.