No Strings Attached
I could talk about the particulars of “No Strings Attached,” but frankly, it’s too boring to discuss. What has happened to romantic comedies, a genre that used to be great with the quick-witted banter of Cary Grant, the inventive plots of Preston Sturges, the dynamic characters of the 1970s? What happened, and how is “No Strings Attached” guilty of every single one of its lazy clichés? To fix this, just follow these rules.
1. Cast the movie, not the poster.
So, two young attractive people decide to become friends with benefits. Don’t just pick two random attractive actors. First off all, let’s make sure they have at least a little bit of chemistry. Just a little bit. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman have zero fizz, and I can’t even tell if they like each other, let alone love each other. Also, pick actors who actually fit the characters. Don’t just shuffle twentysomething Hollywood types and decide these two haven’t been in a movie together yet. Of course, for that to happen …
2. Have characters.
There is nothing to the leads. Nothing. Aside from “they like to have sex,” there is really nothing to describe these leads. The film has a few things like “she doesn’t want her heart broken,” but that doesn’t count because that’s dialogue Portman says about herself constantly. “No Strings Attached” never lets us see it. The best romantic movies are ones in which the audience falls for the characters as well. Guys can talk about how awesome Annie Hall and Amelie are because those are actual characters. Girls talk about Mr. Darcy beyond just, “He’s hot.” The audience needs to swoon as well or else it’s just an incredibly dull experience.
3. Actually try with the flirting.
Part of this ties into actually having characters, but the romantic scenes need to try as well. (Am I asking too much for a movie to try a little bit? I hope not.). The following things need to stop happening. The girl is really good at something the guy likes. (“No Strings Attached” has her getting three hole-in-ones in miniature golf during a montage.) The girl is interested in the guy because he’s randomly vulnerable. (In a flashback, Kutcher is crying about his parents’ divorce.) Also, while on dates, the duo laughs at each other’s jokes, regardless of the fact they’re not funny. (The entire movie.)
4. Have a lot of characters.
It’s the new standard in Hollywood to have two attractive leads and make them really dull. So the only way to make this a romantic comedy is to fill the supporting cast with talented actors and solid comedians. Yet instead of giving them great characters off of which to play, they just have to be themselves and improvise everything. This movie has Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Ludacris (why not?), Mindy Kaling and Jake M. Johnson. None of them play actual characters. Kline is Kutcher’s old father who says sexual stuff! Bell is CRAZY! The others … nothing. There is literally nothing to describe the rest of them. The best friend archetype is the worst because it leads to …
5. Never have a scene where the lead repeats the plot to the best friend ever again.
This is becoming unbearable. This sort of “comedic” tentpole scene happens so many times during every romantic comedy. In this case, Kutcher gives Portman a balloon for a good job at sex. (Wondering why I’m not calling them by their character names? See point 1.) Then Kutcher talks to Johnson about it. Then he talks to Ludacris about it. They each give their one joke. Then we have to see Portman talk to Kaling about it. Move the plot forward. We clearly understood what each character thought about that scene, and the best friends won’t give any actual advice. To have these characters only exist for the sole purpose of being silly sages is infuriating.
6. Don’t let the entire world revolve around the leads.
This one obviously has exceptions — “Arthur,” for example. Yet it makes no sense that the entire TV show Kutcher works on would stop everything and throw him a surprise birthday party. He’s just an assistant on the show! (Don’t argue that Kline made it possible because that doesn’t excuse the scene.) Everywhere Kutcher and Portman go, they are the beloved ones in the room. Despite having low paying jobs, they live in giant houses. Yes, I get that we have to accept some disbelief that these two have trouble finding love, but if you want the audience to relate to the characters at all, bring something down to reality. It’s not even glamorous anymore! Everyone has the same houses in these movies.
7. At least pretend it might not end the way we think.
The whole concept of “will they or won’t they” only ends one way in Hollywood. Due in part to the way they were filmed, romantic comedies of the 1960s or ’70s felt a little more unpredictable. Some scenes existed only to give a lived-in quality to characters and their lives; these weren’t just cookie-cutter scripts. The three-act formula is so calculated with this genre that everybody knows what’s going to happen. Is there any doubt Kutcher and Portman are going to get into a fight two-thirds of the way into the movie? Is there any doubt what will happen next? You could survey the audience before the movie even starts, and they can probably give you the whole film. If you want the ending to matter, even a little bit, make the elements real. Make the fight believable. Just give a little bit of uncertainty.
8. Stop using homosexuality as an empty punchline.
Seriously. It’s just really old now.
9. If you’re going to be “R,” be “R.”
This is an R-rated romantic comedy about two people having sex, but there is no nudity or graphic talk about sex (besides a few dick jokes). If you have the chance to be closer to reality, take it. It just feels so contrived when actresses use the sheets in just the right way. This goes for the guys, too. There is a painfully unfunny scene where Kutcher wakes up on a couch naked and Portman’s roommates are messing with him. Despite dancing naked the night before (off screen, of course), he is shy when sober, so he keeps covering his little Kelso as he walks across the house. Not every film needs to be really raunchy, but when that’s literally your plot and there is nothing to edit for TV, it just feels ridiculous.
10. Don’t spend this much money.
This could solve it all. This movie’s reported budget is $25 million. Why? OK, I get actor salaries, but this could still be under $10 million. Then things probably wouldn’t look as shiny. Every shot is too perfect and too well-lit. This only adds to everything feeling familiar and predictable. People didn’t know how the movie “Once” was going to end because it didn’t look like “The Back-Up Plan” or “The Bounty Hunter” or “Life As We Know It” or “Dear John” or “You Again” or “The Last Song” or “The Switch” or “Killers” or “Valentine’s Day.” If you keep the focus on the characters, the plot, the romance and the comedy, then you have a movie — not this incredibly lazy and forgettable whatever.