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Love and Other Drags

MOVIE REVIEW
No Strings Attached (2011)

No-strings-attached-natalie-portman-ashton-kutcher
Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures

There’s an art to making candy-coated big-budget entertainment, and Ivan Reitman has mastered it. Doubters need only hold the consistently funny, unrelentingly sweet “No Strings Attached” up against such immediate predecessors as last year’s abominable “Valentine’s Day” to recognize the imprint of a quality director on even the most mainstream of fare.

One would be hard-pressed to expect much from an Ashton Kutcher-Natalie Portman vehicle centered on a gimmicky friends-with-benefits exploration. But Mr. Reitman maintains a buoyant tone throughout, capturing millennial life in Los Angeles with squeaky clean affection for the sunny city’s perfectly manicured delights. Elizabeth Meriwether’s screenplay is attuned to the ways well-to-do young people communicate and fall in love in a fast-paced, tech-obsessed world, filling the movie with moments that are essentially recognizable even while heightened to reflect a particular brand of Hollywood weirdness.

Mr. Kutcher — who makes the most of his puppy-dog appeal — plays Adam, a low-level TV producer on a “High School Musical”-like show. He and the beautiful, whip-smart Emma (Ms. Portman) have undergone repeated meet cutes through the years, starting during the awkward, hormonal teenage summer camp years and culminating as post-grads in Los Angeles.

One night, a bout of drunken texting leads to Adam waking up at med student Emma’s apartment, surrounded by her roommates (Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling and Guy Branum, a likable trio). Emma pops in wearing a nightie and things quickly progress — soon enough, the pair decides to become “sex friends,” on call for sexual encounters sans the emotional attachment. You can guess how well that works.

Besides being well-crafted and engaging, a rare enough accomplishment, the movie also slyly subverts the usual gender roles. Ms. Portman is the tough, emotionally-muted one, who (vague spoiler alert) makes the inevitable mad dash against the clock to declare her love for the sheepish, good-hearted Mr. Kutcher.

Far from the actress’s “Norbit” (which many blame for derailing Eddie Murphy’s “Dreamgirls” Oscar hopes), the film offers a rare showcase for her comic gifts, molding Emma out of slapstick comedy, fast-paced dialogue and an undercurrent of sincere vulnerability. It’s perhaps the first time Ms. Portman has been handed a character freed from all but everyday relatable burdens and a welcome reminder that the swan queen can play a “normal” girl and play her well.

Stock genre clichés abound, manifest in a swath of supporting cast caricatures, convoluted comic scenarios and conflict centered on the forced plot device of Emma’s stern commitment phobias. It’s hard to take “No Strings Attached” — multiplex-oriented date-night popcorn fare if ever there was some — too seriously. Mr. Reitman is not his son Jason (“Up in the Air,” “Juno”). Subtle, grounded observational cinema is not his forte.

The elder Mr. Reitman is, however, an accomplished renderer of cheery, big-budget comedy with heart. And given the soul-sucking depths to which the 21st-century rom-com so often descends, to find one done well — a valentine with just the right dash of contemporary wit — is reason to celebrate.

NO STRINGS ATTACHED

Opens on Jan. 21 in the United States and on Feb. 25 in Britain.

Directed by Ivan Reitman; written by Elizabeth Meriwether, based on a story by Mike Samonek and Ms. Meriwether; director of photography, Rogier Stoffers; edited by Dana E. Glauberman; music by John Debney; production design by Ida Random; costumes by Julie Weiss; produced by Mr. Reitman, Joe Medjuck and Jeffrey Clifford; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Natalie Portman (Emma), Ashton Kutcher (Adam), Cary Elwes (Dr. Metzner), Kevin Kline (Alvin), Greta Gerwig (Patrice), Lake Bell (Lucy), Olivia Thirlby (Katie), Chris Bridges a k a Ludacris (Wallace), Jake Johnson (Eli), Mindy Kaling (Shira) and Ophelia Lovibond (Vanessa).

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