No Strings Attached (***), or How Natalie Portman Escaped the Norbit Effect


No Strings Attached.  110 mins.  R.  Directed by Ivan Reitman.  Written by Elizabeth Meriwether.

The bar for January movie offerings is admittedly low.  The same can be said for romantic comedies.  And films starring Ashton Kutcher.  No Strings Attached has a lot working against it before you even enter the theater.  But it does have one not-so-secret weapon: the suddenly everywhere (and awesome) Natalie Portman. After stunning audiences in Black Swan, Portman is back in very different, yet still very fine form.  She radiates confidence, charm, and sex appeal here, and avoids almost all of the annoying tics that plagued her pixie dream girl performance in Garden State.  I'm officially a Portman fan now.
The set-up for the movie will surprise no one.  After several chance encounters over the past 15 years, Adam (Kutcher, at ease and in his element) and Emma (Portman) develop a comfortable bond and, on a whim, decide to become "friends with benefits" or f**kbuddies, whatever you want to call it.  No spooning, no commitment - just sex.  Of course, that proves easier said than done when the two start developing real feelings for each other.  Can their relationship stay physical or will it develop into something more?
Director Ivan Reitman has hit a rough patch in his career, and though No Strings Attached is no classic, it's miles better than, say, Evolution or My Super Ex-Girlfriend.  Baby steps Mr. Reitman, baby steps - better yet, just try to follow your son's lead (Jason did Up in the Air and Juno).  He's eclipsed you in the filmmaking department.  But Ivan does capture the right tone for the movie - like most Apatow comedies, No Strings is crudely, R-rated funny at first (there's a fingering joke in the first 3 minutes) and then genuinely sweet at the end.  It's that mix of the two that makes this such a solid pick for date night audiences.
The supporting cast of women is great, especially Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling as Emma's roommates.  They add a fresh comic perspective to the movie.  Also, Portman's Emma is a thankfully atypical romcom heroine.  She's not cutesy and pining over her guy - she's a tough, workaholic with commitment issues - much more interesting.  It may not be saying much, but No Strings Attached is definitely one of the better romantic comedies to come out of Hollywood in some time.  Plus, it satisfies the ultimate question for any romance: do I like the actors and do I want their characters to get together in the end?  Yes and yes.
On a related note, many people I know have questioned Portman's choice in doing this film.  There's some sentiment out there that No Strings will harm her Black Swan Oscar chances.  Bullocks.  Those people haven't seen the movie.  I can assure you that No Strings is no Norbit.  If you'll recall - that's the crappy movie that Eddie Murphy released in the thick of Oscar season '07 when he was a frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Dreamgirls.  Many Oscar prognosticators blamed the critically-reviled Norbit for Murphy's ultimate loss when the awards were handed out.  So, Portman avoided the Norbit effect.  But which other actors were or weren't so lucky?  Let's take a quick look, shall we:

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