Portman needs more than carrots.
Three years ago, Eddie Murphy was poised to win an Academy Award. Hot off a lauded performance in Dreamgirls, Murphy had finally shaken off years of lowbrow comedy roles to earn a coveted Oscar nod. Yet the release of the Razzie–nominated Norbit shortly before the Academy’s voting period proved to be a crippling blow for Murphy’s award chances.
With her performance in No Strings Attached, Natalie Portman — the prima ballerina of Black Swan — might suffer the same fate. While the romantic comedy hardly reeks of the same stench as Murphy’s crass role, the film is still a dismal effort from all those involved.
Ashton Kutcher plays Adam, a production assistant on a Glee–like TV series who finds himself in a funk after learning that his ex–girlfriend has shacked up with his father. Desperate to get laid, he drinks himself to oblivion and blacks out, waking up in the apartment of former friend and crush Emma (Portman). Though Emma is a successful medical student uninterested in relationships (or at least the emotional intimacy that comes with them), the two agree on an arrangement of sex without feelings. Yet it becomes clear that Adam desires more from Emma than her body, though better reason and principles prevent her from admitting the same.
After a promising introduction in which Adam and Emma’s past is wittily recapped via an awkward summer camp encounter, a frat party and a funeral, the film quickly takes a nosedive into clichéd plot developments and bland interactions. Though Portman’s acting shines in melodramatic fare, she seems unsuited to light banter and everyday situations. Her dialogue is delivered with the same naturalism as a drama student trying too hard to play a part rather than to embody a persona. Kutcher fares better, though that may be a reflection of lower expectatons. His love–sick pin–up is believable, if not particularly interesting or charming.
With too many characters and not enough time devoted to any of them, the film drags on endlessly. A stellar cast including Kevin Kline and Mindy Kaling is wasted on flat stock characters, seeming assembled more to impress the audience than to add anything to the conventional story.
Ultimately, No Strings Attached‘s greatest problem is its frustrating blandness. Unlike Norbit, this is not the sort of cinematic trash that derails an actor hot on the trail of the ultimate honor in Hollywood. It passes under the wheels unnoticed — and hopefully for Portman, forgotten.