NO STRINGS ATTACHED is a sweet and sophisticated comedy that gently navigates the emotionally explosive no-mans-land of modern relationships. No rules, no cookie-cutter blueprints, its a scary place where the friends of those with the biggest questions are the ones who are the quickest to offer advice, and are also the ones with the least hint of a clue.
The romance begins 15 years ago when Adam and Emma are at Camp Weehauken. Emma is uncomfortably trying to comfort Adam as he weeps over his parents divorce. Ten years later, now played by Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, a chance encounter in Michigan, and an unconventional non-date piques the hard-partying Adams interest even more, especially when it ends with Emma telling him that is hes lucky, he will never see her again. Of course he does. Shes just moved to L.A. to do her medical residency, hes a glorified errand-boy on a suspiciously familiar television musical set in a high school. A night of drunken excess after a particularly difficult emotional blow lands Adam naked, hungover, and confused on Emmas sofa. A brisk bout of bouncy repartee and a hazing by Emmas roommates (Mindy Kaling, Greta Gerwig, and the man-mountain of a kewpie doll, Guy Branum) leads to sex. Quick, fun, and uncomplicated sex and so the premise of the film is born. Emma, working 80 hours a week has no time for a relationship as such, but still has a healthy appetite for athletic, uncomplicated boffing. Adam is hunky, talented, and available. They decide to become friends with benefits. It works for Adam, because a straight man with the normal, overwhelming urges emanating from his, ahem, libido, would find a booty-call relationship with a gorgeous, uninhibited woman with no expectations other than gratification ideal. Emma is smart, she is witty, she is beautiful, and she is tantalizingly not available. Not in the carnal sense, the which she enjoys with relish, but emotionally, and theres the, ahem, rub.
Emmas heart has been broken and shes been left with a pile of her exs t-shirts and a determination to never put herself out there emotionally ever again. Adam, smarting from his break-up, and the subsequent hooking up of his ex and his father, is still at heart a hopeless romantic. Adam falls for Emma, which breaks one of the cardinal rules of the arrangement, along with no jealousy and no breakfast the next morning. While the coupling is aggressively unsentimental, the relationship Emma so desperately doesnt want starts developing with a sweet tentativeness that becomes a courtship with distinctly old-fashioned gallantry on Adams part. The juxtaposition is fascinating, including the fact of Adams resiliency after so many emotional bruisings, particularly at the hands of his Peter Pan of a father. Kline is at his whimsically oblivious best, making his first appearance in the briefest of bathing suits while exalting in a physique that is impressive, but still open to the perfect puncturing that Adams hands it. Kline also performs his own composition to celebrate Adams birthday, exhibiting a charm that explains why women of all ages find Dad irresistible, and Adam always manages to find a way to forgive him.
Kutcher and Portman find the right emotional ground, exhibiting more than just attractive bodies, their comic timing is subtle and lethally effective, as is the surprising complexity they find beneath he fun and games. Portman deftly finds both the comedy and tragedy of using her characters last $5 to buy and consume a box of doughnut holes. The supporting cast here provides the ideal backdrop. If the ex (Ophelia Lovibond) is a cartoon character, Lucy (Lake Bell) Adams co-worker who longs for him, is a masterpiece of twitchy skiddishness in search of fulfillment. Any fulfillment. Even if its only keeping one of the kids on the show from doing something that will bring the wrath of the Child Protective Services down upon them. The sentences never quite finished in the rush to get them out, the hair-pin turn in their logic in a desperate attempt to appease the listener, and the whisper-thin control when it comes to dealing with the panic attack that is always just breaking out.
Switching the gender assumptions in NO STRINGS ATTACHED is one of the many smart moves here. Along with such puckish observations that wild animal sex is a casual, impersonal thing, but holding hands is one of the most intimate, dangerous move to make. For all the sexual liberation of the last 50 years, some things never change.