Movie review: Rom-com 'No Strings Attached' saved by cuteness factor

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 9:09 PM

In "No Strings Attached," Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher - or, rather, the impossibly attractive Los Angelenos they play in this better-than-average romantic comedy - believe they can have sex constantly while remaining unattached and on perfectly amicable terms.

Don't they know this can't be done? "Seinfeld's" Elaine and Jerry, two of the most emotionally detached characters in pop culture history, tried this at least twice and couldn't pull it off. What makes Emma (Portman) and Adam (Kutcher) so special?

Truthfully, nothing. Forgive the pseudo-spoiler, but anyone with even vague knowledge of romantic-comedy cliches knows how this contemporary twist on the Harry-sleeps-with-Sally routine will conclude. Yet thanks to the immense likability of the movie's stars - especially Portman, so consistently adorable here that she makes wide-eyed kittens and swaddled infants look like amateurs in the field of cuteness - "No Strings Attached" is an often entertaining look at two people giving their relationship the ol' hooking-uplike-they're-in-college try.

After meeting each other multiple times - first in 1996, when they're both gangly adolescents at Camp Weehawken - Adam and Emma finally let their relationship get physical. In a twist on typical gender roles, Emma suggests the arrangement should remain all coitus, no commitment. That's right, it's the woman, not the man, who refuses to hold hands in public or, God forbid, spoon. But as soon as Adam hands Emma a post-tryst balloon - "Congrats," it clumsily declares - it's clear he's already in l-o-v-e.

And we can see why. With a lesser actress playing Emma, the film could have been yet another subpar rom-com. But Portman sells the material, projecting an intelligence that makes us mostly buy some of the "Three's Company"-style shenanigans that dominate the proceedings. She is genuinely funny here, whether celebrating her mastery of miniature golf or aggressively shoving doughnut holes into her mouth. And when her facade eventually cracks, as it must, she's so genuinely vulnerable that you desperately want to let her cry on your shoulder while huddling under a Snuggie designed for BFFs.

"No Strings Attached," directed by comedy vet Ivan Reitman, has its flaws, including several unnecessary subplots that bog down the movie. But as the first in a series of films hitting theaters this year centering on consequence-free sex - including "Hall Pass" and "Friends With Benefits," featuring Portman's "Black Swan" co-star Mila Kunis - it sets a decent precedent.

And after starving herself, ripping off her cuticles and going mad in "Black Swan," it's nice to see Portman having some fun here. She even gets to drink a milkshake. Really, hasn't she earned a few slurps of sugary goodness?

No Strings Attached -- (103 minutes, area theaters) is rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material.

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