BY NANCY R. MANDELL
Having only recently caught up with Natalie Portman's Golden Globe-winning (and sure-to-be Oscar-nominated) over-the-top performance in the melodrama "Black Swan," I was puzzled by the diminutive actress' decision to take on the lead in a romantic comedy like:"No Strings Attached." In retrospect, however, the two roles share more in common than I expected. Both Emma ("No Strings"), a doctor-in-residence at a Los Angeles hospital, and Nina, "Black Swan's" maladjusted ballerina, are socially inept young women whose imaginations create romantic relationships that are clearly impossible to realize. In Nina's case, her fantasy life is a symptom of the insanity that will end badly. Emma, on the other hand, will come to her senses before the final credits, wondering "I don't know why I wasted so much time pretending I don't care."
Why, indeed! Well, for one thing, without Emma's denial of her feelings for leading man Ashton Kutcher, there would be no screenplay to film. The premise of "No Strings" is that Emma and Adam (Kutcher) — off-and-on friends since an awkward summer camp meeting as young teens — can fulfill each others physical needs without incurring any emotional entanglement...friends with benefits, or the flip side to the question posed so long ago in "When Harry Met Sally" of whether a man and woman can sustain a friendship without sex. Of course, we all know how that turned out, and it's no stretch to figure out that Adam and Emma will fail similarly in their experiment.Happily, the two leads, supported by some very well-cast "friends" and "family members" manage to keep the story moving briskly along until about the last 20 minutes or so. They are also helped by Elizabeth Meriwether's script (from a story she co-wrote with Mike Samonek), a musical score by John Debney — appropriately credited as the youngest recipient of ASCAP's "prestigious Henry Mancini Career Achievement Award" — and most significantly, direction by Ivan Reitman, a veteran of winners like "Animal House," the "Ghostbusters" series and the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedies "Twins," "Junior" and "Kindergarten Cop." A co-producer of this film, Reitman also has a string of credits in that capacity, most recently as producer of "Up in the Air," the excellent 2009 Oscar contender directed by his son, Jason Reitman.
We meet the grown-up Adam, who writes scripts when he's not working as a PA on a high school musical sitcom, fresh from the discovery that his lamented ex-girlfriend Vanessa has moved in with his father, an actor whose fame as a beloved sitcom legend allows him the favors of women half (or more) his age. Kevin Kline, who starred in Reitman's "Dave," excels as a narcissist who just can't help ruining the father-son relationship by competing sexually with the child he really loves.
Fortunately, Adam has a couple of down-to-earth buddies — played by Jake Johnson and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges — to support him through his romantic crises. On Emma's side of the aisle (and it looks like there will be an aisle!) are Olivia Thirlby as her sister Katie, Emma's emotional opposite, and best-friend Patrice — a co-resident at home and in the hospital — played with a soupçon of cynicism by up-and-comer Greta Gerwig. Rounding out the ensemble is Lake Bell, just right as the bright but goofy associate producer of Adam's TV show.
It's funny, but Portman's character here is almost as unsympathetic as Nina in "Black Swan." What can you say of an eligible doctor who describes her aversion to romance as "an emotional peanut allergy?" As Adam grows more and more likable, Emma puts a damper on every effort he makes to stir up her affections. She fights him off both literally and figuratively. "You fight like a hamster," Adam tells her as she beats against his chest with her tiny fists! It takes a remarkably long time for Emma to acknowledge that Adam is not only "very tall, but unknowingly happy" and the possessor of "the best heart."
Unfortunately, it takes a sequence of cliché events ranging from her sister's wedding to Kline's hospitalization that clog up the film's ending to tie up all the loose ends of "No Strings" into knots. But even though you may feel you've had enough, stick around for the credits which run over a epilogue that contains some very funny bits.
"No Strings Attached" opened Friday in wide release.