Originally titled The Fuck Buddies, No Strings Attached is a film about what happens when two highly attractive, sexually compatible people with no interest in long-term commitment decide to limit their relationship to sex. Except since it’s a romantic comedy—with multiple Greek choruses of advice-giving sidekicks, among other expected trappings—it’s really not. The film tantalizes its protagonists (Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman) with the joys of sexual freedom for four or five montage-heavy minutes, then spends the rest of its runtime showing the loneliness and disappointment awaiting anyone not on their way to pairing off and chasing a happily ever after ending with the perfect someone. Freedom and experimentation are all well and good until you end up scarfing donut holes, listening to Leona Lewis, and weeping over the one who got away.
No Strings Attached might be more persuasive if Kutcher and Portman ever seemed like they ought to end up together. Kutcher plays an aspiring TV writer working on a High School Musical-like show and lamenting that his famous sitcom-star dad (a quite funny Kevin Kline) has taken up with Kutcher’s ex-girlfriend. Portman is an emotionally closed-off, romance-averse doctor, and though she’s never convincing in the part—in spite of her Black Swan breakthrough, in this setting, she still seems too inherently likeable to suggest a damaged psyche and the edgy personality to go with it—the two generate a nice, chummy, sexy chemistry. But it doesn’t look much like love.
Maybe that’s why No Strings Attached crowds the edges with so many engaging performers. Portman’s character shares a house with fellow doctors played by Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, and Guy Branum, all charming enough to suggest a more entertaining movie might be found in their living room. Jake Johnson and Ludacris provide amusing support as Kutcher’s crew, and Kline livens up his every scene as a drug-, youth-, and trend-chasing star whose ego never deflated after his decades-ago time in the limelight. The most surprising moments belong to Lake Bell, who plays against her statuesque looks as Kutcher’s awkward, neurotic, lovestruck co-worker. Also on hand: Olivia Thirlby and Saturday Night Live’s Abby Elliott. If anything, No Strings Attached provides Exhibit A in the argument that Hollywood does a disservice to its talent by continually packing it into formulaic product.
That said, No Strings Attached isn’t a bad piece of formulaic product. Until its endless final act, Elizabeth Meriwether’s script and Ivan Reitman’s old-hand direction keep the scenes moving briskly against a pleasant backdrop of landmark- and coffee-shop-strewn L.A. streets. It helps that everyone lets the supporting characters burst regularly into the not terribly compelling lead story. Meanwhile, Kutcher and Portman lurch toward a foregone conclusion that feels scripted on the page, when it ought to feel written in the stars.