Pretend you're shocked when I tell you that here at the Indy we almost never get films to review in advance of their official release date, at least not when it comes to mainstream Hollywood flicks. I don't get to sit in a screening room a week before the rest of you, which of course means there's always going to be a bit of a time lag between movie release and published review.
This isn't a huge deal, but it does make it hard to keep blinders on as other reviews are published two or three days before I even see the film. And while I never read a review before writing my own, it can be hard to avoid seeing or hearing about the Rotten Tomatoes score. One thing I've noticed about the now ubiquitous Tomatometer is that it's essentially an inverted bell curve. The vast majority of movies either score above 60 or below 40. Rare is the film that completely splits the critics, somehow failing to elicit any consensus despite the pooling of hundreds of opinions.
No Strings Attached is one of those films—its Tomatometer score currently stands at 50 percent. Because I saw that score beforehand, it was in the back of my mind as I actually watched the film—mostly because I'm a dork and like this rare case study of a film with no consensus. But here's my vote: I liked it.
No Strings Attached has a lot going against it in its quest for critic approval, the most obvious of which is that it's a romantic comedy with Ashton Kutcher in the lead. Let's take Kutcher out of the equation for a minute and judge this film against its peers—namely the glut of mediocre to awful romcoms that have single handedly allowed Kate Hudson, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew McConaughy to be referred to as "movie stars" for the last decade. Obviously it's a low bar from which to judge, but the latest from director Ivan Reitman is at the top of a mediocre genre.
That sounds like more of a backhanded compliment that I mean to it to be. While this is nowhere near a great film, it does prove that in the hands of seasoned and veteran actors like Natalie Portman and Kevin Kline, and fantastic relative newcomers like Mindy Kaling (Kelly from "The Office"), it's not hard to pull together an above-average romantic comedy when given a half-decent storyline. Plus, Ludacris is fantastic in his supporting role as a bartender and Kutcher's confidante.
Portman, in what can only be described as the exact opposite of her role in Black Swan, plays Emma, an ER resident who has a self-described "emotional peanut allergy" to long-term relationships and boyfriends. She is, however, willing to find time in her busy schedule for a sex friend. Enter Adam (Kutcher), whom she has known since adolescence and with whom she has recently been reacquainted. They form a friends-with-benefits pact that includes such rules as no cuddling, no breakfasts and no jealousy. When Adam informs a stranger on the street of this agreement, the stranger quickly replies, "That never works."
Of course it doesn't. That stronger emotions eventually come into play is no surprise, but how No Strings Attached gets us there—and where it leads—is, dare I say, a bit charming. Ignoring the final, exceptionally cheesy resolution, there is fun to be had in following Emma and Adam as they attempt to remain emotionally detached for as long as possible. There is equal fun on the periphery, where Adam's father (the always fun Kline) has started dating his son's ex-girlfriend, and where Emma's roommates (including Kaling) watch with amusement as the NSA agreement unfolds.
This brings us back to Mr. Demi Moore (or as Ricky Gervais referred to him at the Golden Globes last week, Bruce Willis' son). I'm willing to bet that the ambivalence of other critics toward this film has as much to do with Kutcher in the leading male role as anything else. His reputation precedes him, and that's unfortunate because this is his best film to date. (Now that's a backhanded compliment.) The former male model has come a long way since Dude, Where's My Car, and while Kutcher is never going to win awards for his acting, that doesn't mean he's not capable of turning in funny, subdued performances as he does here. I kept expecting the crazed, over-amped and very annoying Kutcher of "Punk'd" fame to make an appearance. He never did.
Given such a contrived premise, No Strings Attached is more enjoyable as a whole than it has any right to be. It's been 27 years since Reitman directed Ghostbusters (yeah, I feel old too), and he proves here that nearly three decades later he still knows how to entertain us. I won't dare ask for more from a romantic comedy.
No Strings Attached continues at the Village 6.