Never mind its veneer of crude, insouciant cool: Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached is a desperate movie, scrambling to patch its by-the-numbers story with hastily tacked-on bona fides. Following the inevitable progression of Adam Franklin (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma Kurtzman (Natalie Portman) from friends to lovers to soul mates, the film sets off coarse jokes like signal flares, positioned to distract from its otherwise dowdy makeup. Like Adam’s aging father, Alvin (Kevin Kline), a former TV star clinging to youth via recreational drug use and Lil Wayne fanship, it hides its mustiness through surface touches, burying itself in of-the-moment signifiers.
This includes all manners of contemporary allusions: forced references to Internet memes and ’90s nostalgia, food trucks, rock covers of Jay-Z hits, and so many scenes featuring Adam’s iPhone that it might as well be a secondary character. Its other tactic is surprise, trading on its fresh-faced cast to shock us with gags about cunnilingus and fingering. Yet none of this raunchy posturing distracts from the moldy, simplistic politics on display, the insistence that good, attractive people exist solely to fall in love with one another, with a few annoying weirdos thrown in to obfuscate that goal. Where Seinfeld mined a similar scenario 20 years ago to explore the reasoning behind societal norms, No Strings Attached employs it as another feint, a lead-in to enforcing the ideal of wholesome monogamy.
All this might pass by harmlessly were the film’s mechanics not so visible. The central dilemma, which keeps the clearly perfect for each other protagonists apart for nearly two hours, is that neither is interested a serious relationship. This is sketchily established, and the reasons for it therefore feel assembled after the fact, and not even with much thought: she’s busy, and fears intimacy; he’s a good-natured pushover who seems up for anything. It’s the same kind of narrative laziness which lets us know that because Emma works at a hospital, that location will become a juncture for future dramatic situations, with several characters injuring themselves mostly to move the story along.
Without all this fuss and bother, the film might make for a plausible diversion. If it settled for acceptance of its rom-com limitations, the creaky concept, paired with the inherent likeability of its two stars, might let their chemistry take over the movie. The writing can also be neat and propulsive, when it’s not going for broke to set off vulgar comedic bombs.
But it’s these kinds of things that define the type of film this is trying to be, its attempts to glom onto the current model of effortlessly lewd comedies. Early on, after one of the chance meetings that set up their eventual affair, Emma invites Adam to accompany her to “some stupid thing” she’s committed to the following day. That obligation—spoiler alert—turns out to be, wait for it, her father’s funeral, an occasion that allows for the juxtaposition of a somber graveside scene with Adam, dressed in flip flops and a yellow hoodie. It’s a theoretically funny scenario, but one that abandons any pretense of logic and character in service of a cheap joke, leaving that joke feeling desperate and over-extended.