No Strings Attached (dir. Ivan Reitman, 2011)

Contemporary romantic comedies are often peopled by needy, weirdly competitive female characters, emotional bloodsuckers clamoring for “challenging” men, Cartier rings and Vera Wang anything to buffer their one-dimensional self-esteems.  In No Strings Attached, Ivan Reitman’s enjoyable, playfully frank rom-com from a screenplay by playwright Elizabeth Meriwether, such Bridezillas-in-wishful-training are nowhere to be found. Instead, Reitman has assembled a dream team of talented young actresses who have all in their own ways been making inroads in the slow development of interesting roles for women in Hollywood, and who are all welcome faces in what has become a woefully tired genre.

Medical intern Emma (Natalie Portman, still glowing from her triumph in Black Swan and nimbly stepping into a considerably less operatic role) lives with two of her friends and co-workers (Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling) in a universe not unlike that of many post-Millenial twenty-somethings. These young women are smart, single, lewdly funny about sex, and pragmatic about the prospect of romance in an age when people “add” friends with the push of a button and have an arsenal of potential hook-ups stockpiled in their iPhone contact list. When poor little rich guy of divorced parentage Adam (Ashton Kutcher) drunkenly dials Emma’s digits and winds up in her apartment, the two have a hot 45 seconds together and then agree to be available for commitment-free sex whenever and wherever they can arrange it.

That Emma is silently reeling from her father’s death a few years prior and that Adam is broken by his parents’ failed marriage are plot points treated factually and lightly, and are not so much tidy explanations for the attractive couple’s non-relationship as factors coming into play in a field crowded with modern realities. Both Portman and Kutcher allow their characters’ pain to be subtly palpable, lurking discreetly under the surface and emerging as knee-jerk, disarmingly typical relationship anxieties. (Though Portman is easily and abundantly the more talented of the two, Kutcher mostly drops his usual fratty demeanor to pleasant effect, making for an onscreen duo of surprising restraint.)

No Strings Attached is by no means the romantic comedy to end all others, and the film has its modestly fair share of Hollywood contrivance and common-denominator pandering. Yet its insistence on realistic sequences over manic set-pieces, and actual women over automatons obsessed with the wedding industrial complex, is notable. The film’s quality is made most evident in a particularly funny scene in which Emma and her roommates are holed up in their apartment on matching menstrual cycles. The humor in the scene comes not from a “Ewww, periods!” mentality but from the collective self-pitying and weirdly unifying nature of girlfriends’ cycles being in sync. And Adam, refreshingly unafraid of That Time Of The Month and eager to help the ladies in their bloated commiseration, brings over cupcakes and a “period mix” CD with such classics on it: “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.”