Friday, January 28, 2011

'Strings' is a better than expected romantic comedy

Natalie Portman was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her completely exposed and raw performance in the intense psychological thriller “The Black Swan.” She's the odds-on favorite to win and is absolutely deserving of the accolade. It is a movie worth seeing, but it is deeply disturbing. I recommend pairing it with something light, fluffy and fun as a palate cleanser.

Conveniently enough, Portman is also presently starring in the romantic comedy “No Strings Attached,” a film that is the perfect after-dinner mint to the heavy meal that is “The Black Swan.”

The romantic comedy is in a pretty dire state. Recent entries into the genre have been ranging from bland to noxious. “No Strings Attached” proves to be ahead of the current curve. It is a film that works thanks to a funny script by Elizabeth Meriwether and a strong cast.

Portman stars as Emma, a commitment-phobe who avoids emotional attachments, who agrees to enter into sex-only relationship with Adam (Ashton Kutcher). Soon Adam wants more and so does Emma, but she refuses it to allow that to develop.

The plot of the film is nothing remarkable and, as is the nature of a romantic comedy, is entirely predictable. As an audience, we know that Emma and Adam will wind up together. What distinguishes a romantic comedy is whether it can make us care enough to go through all the plot contrivances that keep the two leads apart for 90 minutes.

Kutcher is one of the more critically maligned actors working today. His mere presence in a film will usually get the whole thing dismissed. Kutcher is not a great actor and has been in his fair share of thoroughly mediocre films. I am always one to give credit when it is due and here he is likable and charismatic.

Portman, who has shown she can do bubbly and cute in films like “Garden State,” gets to show that she can do comedy with a rougher edge. She has some raunchy dialogue that she delivers effectively. She is sexy and funny in a way we haven't quite seen from her.

While the film's use of vulgarities or crude humor never goes to the level of a film like “There's Something About Mary” it does earns its R rating. Thankfully the film isn't crass to simply be crass. The humor is character-based, and, while characters are often sketched broadly, Meriwether's script does keep things on a plane of reality. Even if the dialogue is heavy on quips, her characters speak like human beings rather than characters in a movie.

It is often the case in these sorts of films that the two leads have a circle of wisecracking friends and confidants, and that is the case here. These supporting characters, though, are very well cast and also truly funny.

On Kutcher's side there is Jake Johnson and rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. Bridges, who showed he was a good actor in "Crash," has a nice deadpan delivery. On Portman's side there is Greta Gerwig (“Greenberg”), Mindy Kaling (“The Office”) and Olivia Thirlby (“Juno”). Gerwig is a particularly bright spot in the cast, and there is a charming subplot in which she starts dating Johnson.

The film's ace in the hole is Kevin Kline as Kutcher's father, a former sitcom star who is perpetually on drugs. Kline is such a brilliant comic actor that he even shines in what easily could be a throwaway stock role. When he starts dating Kutcher's dimwitted ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond) the result are quite hilarious.

In the final third of the film, Emma's fears of getting too close drive the two apart, but just as the film is beginning to stretch credibility and our patience, the script delivers big laughs from unexpected places. Even Lake Bell, as the awkward colleague that briefly, and inevitably, becomes a potential love interest for Kutcher, gets some real laughs.

This is not a great film, but it is lightweight, low-key entertainment that delivers on that level and that's not something to be dismissed. Good light entertainment is hard to come by these days.

No comments: