Romantic comedies need a good kick in the pants, and an aging Ivan Reitman ain't the guy to do it. "No Strings Attached," the first of at least three 2011 films about non-committal sex (with "Friends with Benefits" and "Hall Pass" in hot pursuit), is only sparsely amusing and never insightful. Big surprise. Who would have guessed that a 64-year-old director would be the wrong choice for a movie about hip people half his age? "No Strings Attached" might have been a decent film had it followed through on its premise, but that it falls victim to just about every romcom trapping negates the most potentially interesting thing it has going for it.
Everyone involved has proved themselves elsewhere. Reitman directed legendary '80s comedies "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters" before churning out a string of stinkers, including "My Super Ex Girlfriend" in 2006. Stars Natalie Portman (Emma) and Ashton Kutcher (Adam) are similarly defenseless against the lousy script. For my money, Portman still put on the best performance of 2010 in "Black Swan," and by comparison her turn here is particularly disappointing. Kutcher is the weakest link, but has consistently proved he can hold his own in otherwise lame duck comedies like "Valentine's Day."
But between the bad direction, worse script, and lazy performances, "No Strings Attached" is a triple threat. Its worst blunder is that Emma and Adam's relationship is unbelievable, and their chemistry is nonexistent. Fledgling screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether posits a female lead that flip-flops her stance on monogamy every two scenes, and Portman doesn't even attempt to sell it. Emma comes off pragmatic one minute and off her rocker the next. It makes less sense still given that her relationship with Adam isn't anything special to begin with. The B- romance between Greta Gerwig and Jake M. Johnson, friends of our principle couple, is actually markedly more naturalistic and compelling. It's a shame they're on screen so infrequently.
Meriwether's script is also criminally overlong. Two-hour comedies need to die a slow and painful death; there's just no reason "No Strings Attached" should exceed the 100-minute mark. What's worse, the audience has little expectation for when the film will end. More than once, a picturesque finale will align only for Emma to inexplicably get cold feet. Or Adam's father to take ill. The bait and tease might work if the better-late-than-never conclusion defied expectation, but in all likelihood you already know exactly how it will end. The biggest surprise is how much melodramatic filler we have to wade through on the way.
"No Strings Attached," like last year's mediocre "Love and Other Drugs" articulates the pressing need for innovation in Hollywood's romantic comedies. Depicting a relationship built on causal sex isn't especially progressive, and Ivan Reitman isn't one of the directors I'm especially interested in seeing discuss sexuality. Then again, he barely clears his throat on the subject; for a film about sex, "No Strings Attached" is pretty much sterile despite its R rating. Intellectually, the film is a solid PG-13. Our characters generally don't behave with the nuance expected of two 30-year-olds, and Meriwether relies on decrepit genre archetypes rather than cause and effect to progress the plot.
All told, Reitman's latest is unworthy of recommendation despite falling short of being an outright waste of time. It does feature a few genuinely funny moments that help excuse its crippling formula, but it never asserts itself or challenges the classic romantic comedy blueprint as much as its premise might indicate. Reitman deserves a kick in the pants every bit as much as the genre.