What "No Strings Attached" lacks in originality and unpredictability is made up for in the charm and likeability of its leads. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman not only have great onscreen chemistry, they also are individually well developed - at least, as well developed as they can be within the boundaries of a romantic comedy. It's also surprisingly funny, although it's only partly because of the well placed raunchy sex jokes; the film is one of the few recent romantic comedies to successfully find that balance between sweetness and silliness, and while that's only moderate praise for writer Elizabeth Meriwether and director Ivan Reitman, at least it's proof that they know how to take innately ridiculous material and make it accessible to general audiences.
The film is not realistic in any way, shape, or form, but that's just stating the obvious because we don't go to movies like this looking for meaning or truth. It tells the story of Adam and Emma (Kutcher and Portman), who first met as teenagers in summer camp and saw each other off and on over the next several years. In the present day, they live in Los Angeles, Adam an assistant on a TV series that crosses "Glee" with "High School Musical," Emma a doctor at UCLA. They have successfully maintained a friendship, although there's always a flash of jealousy whenever one of them shows up with a significant other. When Adam's girlfriend dumps him for his father (Kevin Kline), he goes on a bender, makes several phone calls to women he knows ... and wakes up in Emma's apartment, naked and surrounded by Emma's friends and fellow residents.
No sex took place the night before. The morning after, however, Adam and Emma suddenly drop their defenses and just go for it. That's when they decide to take a stab at being friends with benefits; they will use each other for sex at any time of the day, but they won't commit to anything long-term. Surprisingly, this comes at the insistence of Emma, who for reasons left a little obscure is frightened by serious relationships. This is made clear in her habit of texting Adam rather than seeing him in person, a trend that has become all too real in today's smart phone society. I'll stop short of saying this movie is sending a message about technology limiting social interaction, although there are hints of it all throughout.
No more of the plot needs to be described. It goes through the motions and ends exactly the way we expect it to end. There are, however, a couple of side characters that deserve to be mentioned. One of the best is Adam's on-set colleague, Lucy (Lake Bell), who's deeply neurotic and talks at a hundred miles an hour. Making this kind of character likeable is next to impossible, and yet Bell pulls it off, probably because she understood that there's a fine line between comedy relief and annoyance. And then there are Adam's best friends, played by Chris Bridges and Jake Johnson; they aren't given all that much to do, but you can count on them for a few good male-oriented one-liners. Kline is somewhat underutilized as Adam's father, a former TV star who does drugs as if it was the 1970s and has a thing for much younger women. He's mostly just a counterpoint to his son, a way for the audience to see what Adam should not do when it comes to meeting and loving the opposite sex.
One of the film's funniest scenes is in Emma's apartment, where she and her girlfriends - along with one gay man - spend the night together in the throes of menstrual agony. Knowing they're all on the same cycle, Adam stops by with a box full of cupcakes. He also gives Emma a period-specific mix CD, with titles I probably can't repeat for the purposes of this review. There's also a moment when Emma gives Adam a Valentine's Day card, which reads, "You give me premature ventricular contractions." I laughed hard. But then again, I was raised by registered nurses who specialized in cardiology, so I probably have an unfair advantage.
Reitman made the right choices in the casting of Kutcher and Portman, for they have that compatibility movies like this require. Kutcher is especially enjoyable and plays what may be the warmest, most caring role of his entire career. Portman is also a natural fit for this movie, which is surprising given her latest stint as a mentally ill ballerina; it's good for even the most dedicated and serious of actors to reveal that they do in fact have a sense of humor. "No Strings Attached" is by no means a great movie, and it will never be in the same league as "Ghostbusters" and "Ghostbusters II," my two favorite Reitman comedies. But if you're in the mood for a conventional lightweight romantic comedy, this movie gets the job done nicely.