No Strings Attached' wastes an intriguing premise with its reliance on formulaic romantic comedy conventions, bizarrely sudden jolts to the overall tone and the total absence of 'will they or won't they?' tension.
From the start of the film we know that cute aspiring television writer Adam (Ashton Kutcher) is going to become romantically involved with the world's hottest doctor, Emma (Natalie Portman). I mean, duh, right?
She has trouble showing affection and she's afraid of relationships. But she's smart and quirky. Loves sex. Did I mention hot? He's a handsome softy with charm, humor and cupcakes for her comic relief roomies (Mindy Kaling, Greta Gerwig, Guy Branum) who goes along with the "friends with benefits" situation she proposes even though he clearly wants more.
He's got a couple of friends (Jake Johnson, Ludacris) who serve no purpose to the story; a self-involved famous father (Kevin Kline) who is more caricature than character; an ex-girlfriend (Opheila Lovibond) whose personality is so implausible not only is it impossible to believe that Adam dated her but that anyone would date her.
Emma's friends, family members and co-workers don't have much to do either, including an apparently "important" doctor (Cary Elwes) whose scenes must have been trimmed. There's also some guy (Ben Lawson) who has the hots for Emma but clearly has no chance and is never portrayed as any actual threat to Adam. Also, it randomly turns out he's gay. Huh?
The real meat of the story here is that these two like each other but decide to have a "no strings attached" non-relationship, which is fun then utterly fails them and inevitably (but of course momentarily) drives them apart until the big moment when someone tells one of them to "go to" the other one. Of course the new romantic comedy cliche is to have this first attempt at a rushed rescue at the airport or wherever fail, usually due to some misunderstanding involving another person (in this case, Lake Bell) who ends up with another single supporting character anyway (in this case, Kevin Kline. Don't worry, Gerwig and Johnson pair off together, too).
The movie is directed in a serviceable fashion, I suppose, by Ivan Reitman, 'though there are real problems with pacing and tone. Many of the jokes in the movie are amusing on some level but very few are laugh-out-loud funny. At first it all moves briskly but there are many sudden hiccups: a pointlessly crude remark here or there, forced-in "The Office" style awkwardness humor that doesn't really belong (did the generally hilarious Kaling do some rewrites?) and that aforementioned sex scene.
The first time we see Adam and Emma together we spend a long time looking at a closeup of their two faces starting and finishing the act. Yep, these two are beautiful. Yep, it's pretty hot. It just doesn't fit here. All that other "no strings attached" sex they're having? Glossed over in zany rom-com montage style, the likes of which you'd expect to see Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant accidentally bumping their heads together.
Things really slow down at the end as the painfully obvious resolution draws near. The jokes are further apart. It just starts to dragggggg...
Ya know what's a real drag? Kutcher tries to play it all with subtlety which we all know must be a chore for him. I applaud him for branching out with his performance somewhat. Portman is clearly trying to let her hair down (metaphorically and literally), letting us know it's not all black swans, Harvard classes and Padmé, but this movie spends a really long time failing to accomplish what that gut-bushing "SNL" digital short managed in minutes. She's sexy, smart, cool and very funny. Just not really in this.