Comedy veteran Ivan Reitman hasn't directed a film since 2006's 'My Super Ex-Girlfriend,' and for his return to the director's chair -- 'No Strings Attached' -- he has opted to make what a friend of a friend told him a Judd Apatow romantic comedy was supposed to be. The film is crowded with plenty of snappy best friends and warmed-over pop-culture references, the screenplay flips gender roles to little emotional effect, and the chemistry between its two leads is limited to the fact that Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher are both awfully photogenic beings.
We first meet Emma and Adam fifteen years ago, when they attended summer camp together and had already established their respective personalities -- he's the sensitive type, she's far more pragmatic. Jump ahead by ten years, where they reunite at a frat kegger and have grown into persons resembling Portman and Kutcher. She invites him to "some stupid thing" the following day, which turns out to be her father's funeral. (Any other movie would settle for the unlikely awkwardness of the situation alone. This one has Adam attending the funeral in a college hoodie, shorts and flip-flops.)
One more meet-cute later, the two have each made their way to L.A. and settle for being platonic pals -- that is, until Adam finds out that his ex has taken up with his dad (Kevin Kline, playing Harrison Ford) and goes on a full-blown bender before waking up in Emma's apartment. That's when she has her brilliant idea: what if they used one another for the sex? She works eighty hours a week at the hospital, he's still sore over his ex-girlfriend, and neither's really looking for any serious emotional attachment at the time. Can they keep things strictly carnal without falling in lurve?
You and I both know the answer to that, and credited screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether hardly deviates from the routine. A few hump-happy montages later, and Emma and Adam are already questioning whether or not they're starting to have Real Feelings. At best, you could wind up with the next 'When Harry Met Sally..,' (which this is not). It echoes the "sex first, love later" approach of 'Love and Other Drugs,' but is far more cutesy in the execution when compared to the genuinely hot-blooded passion between Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal -- a chemistry potent enough to salvage that film from its own tonal issues. Kutcher is an adequate puppy dog, while Portman is a little worse for wear as the relationship's requisite commitment-phobe, constantly clammy and inexplicably resistent to making a proper adult connection. (The best reason we're given? Her daddy died.)
Waiting in the wings to dole out marginally snappy one-liners are Kline (playing a showbiz legend whose son doesn't want any help from him -- Jason Reitman, anyone?), the amazingly generic Jake Johnson as his best bud, Olivia Thirlby as her little sister, Ludacris as the black friend, Guy Branum as the gay friend, Lake Bell as a spazzy colleague of Adam's, Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling as Emma's sassy roommates, and Abby Elliott as a girl who does impressions just like that one girl on "Saturday Night Live." It's a laundry list of supporting comedians, and between Reitman and Meriwether, they're given precious little wit to work with. I suspect that Reitman, now 64, just let the kids have free reign; the resulting banter reflects such a disconnect.
(It should also be mentioned that Cary Elwes is ostensibly in this movie. He does in fact appear as a doctor, and the fact that all of his lines can be counted on one hand only reinforces any and all theories of apathy on the set and/or in the editing room.)
At 108 minutes, 'Strings' dawdles equally in the set-up and the home stretch, as if reluctant to finally surrender to the cliches it otherwise seems to relish. Admittedly, very few romantic comedies manage to subvert the formula -- if ever a genre was akin to comfort food, it's the rom-com -- but that's fine so long as the ingredients are somewhat fresh or charming. 'No Strings Attached' is bland even for comfort food: occasionally pleasing but mostly flat. Hopefully, they'll get the recipe right next time... which is to say, in 'Friends with Benefits' six months from now.