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Just One of Those Strings

Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher get set up by Hollywood.

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In the high-concept romantic comedy No Strings Attached, the woman who wants lots of sex with zero emotional commitment isn’t portrayed as a slut, which is a nice change. She does, however, come off as a head case. Emma (Natalie Portman), a brainy medical resident, has a highly satisfying quickie with an old summer-camp acquaintance, Adam (Ashton Kutcher), and, flush with pleasure, proposes they “use each other” physically. After accepting her terms (no breakfast together, no flowers, etc.), Adam promptly tries to take their relationship to the next level, which drives Emma crazy for the good reason that … well … there is no good reason. Although the snappy script is by a woman, Elizabeth Meriwether, and the standard gender roles are reversed (the female is the brusque professional, the male the clingy sex object), the movie never makes the case for Emma’s point of view. You don’t see for an instant why a young woman in a high-pressure residency might be wise to approach a relationship warily. You don’t see—given that Adam is gorgeous, funny, kind, talented, and, to cap it off, rich—any impediment whatsoever to happily-ever-afterdom. It’s no wonder a guy behind me muttered, “What’s her problem?”

Her problem, I think, is that she’s a Frankensteinian studio construct with mismatched parts. No Strings Attached began life as Fuck Buddies (or F*&$ Buddies, or some variation thereof), and I’m guessing that in the course of its evolution anything messy or dissonant—any real drama—was discarded, along with any credible accounting for what Emma calls her “allergy” to relationships. So the movie plays as a long and rather cruel proof that the “no strings attached” doctrine can’t work and that Emma is a freak for believing otherwise. (There are pre-Code movies from the early thirties with less old-fashioned ideas about casual sex.) A different actress might have filled in some gaps, but Portman—as intelligent as she is—doesn’t have much imagination. If George Lucas gives her wooden dialogue, she’ll be wooden to the core. If Darren Aronofsky makes her his masochistic marionette, she’ll twirl and hurl on cue. As Emma, she dutifully oscillates between brittle detachment and hysterical neediness, but the why-why-whys remain unanswered.

Director Ivan Reitman, with his anvil touch, is no help: He has zero affinity for his female characters and seems to have made the movie to get in on his son Jason’s Zeitgeist-comedy action. (Is it a coincidence that Adam’s celebrity dad, played by Kevin Kline, steals his son’s girlfriend?) Apart from a surreally dizzy turn by Lake Bell as a TV producer with a crush on Adam, the trendy cast is wasted. (Greta Gerwig as Emma’s roommate is confined to sympathetic smirks.) No Strings Attached is so palpably calculated that you know if the camera had pulled back a foot from the bed in which Portman and Kutcher were pretending to have sex, you’d have seen their agents standing by beaming: proud parents, proud pimps.

First Blue Valentine, now, from Denmark, Applause: In less than a month I’ve had to endure two intense psychodramas in which the jittery, handheld camera hovers dermatologist-close to actors’ faces beset by seismic waves of grief and rage. Both have a certain too-muchness, but both, in the end, give you something to see. In Applause, it’s the amazingly named Paprika Steen, who looks like Natasha Richardson if she’d lived longer and much, much harder. Steen is Thea, an alcoholic leading actress appearing onstage as Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? while, offstage, slowly waking up from the nightmare that has been her life. Her ex-husband remarried her opposite number—an unhistrionic psychologist—and she hasn’t seen her young sons in a couple of years. Now she wants them back. Over and over she insists, “I’ve changed”—a line that’s a reliable indicator of someone who hasn’t. Director Martin Pieter Zandvliet cuts in snatches of the Albee play with metronomic regularity—but with an actress this magnificent the scaffolding barely shows. Steen draws a fluid line between Thea-as-Martha and Thea in the “real” world, putting on make-up, pretending to be something she isn’t, trying to achieve some measure of autonomy in the grip of an ungovernable ego. As much of her as there is, you’ll want more.

No Strings Attached
Paramount Pictures. R.

Applause
World Wide Motion Pictures Corporation. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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