Somewhere off-screen in No Strings Attached, Vincent Cassel is shaking his head. As the ballet director in Black Swan, Cassel spends much of his time exasperated with his star dancer, played by Natalie Portman, as she struggles to transform herself from zee White Swan -- innocent, elegant, precise -- to zee Black Swan, a creature of spontaneity and lust. And on one unmistakable level, that film is about Portman's limitations as an actress (or her perceived limitations, anyway), and her attempts to expand her range and transform her image. She'll likely win an Oscar for it.
In No Strings Attached, Portman is once again called upon to play the Black Swan, and once again the beast within isn't easily summoned. As Emma, an independent woman with an admitted "peanut allergy for relationships," Portman gets the type of role more frequently assigned to men in Bud Light commercials: She may like the hot body across from her, but if it talks too much or wants to snuggle, she's out the door. Accordingly, Elizabeth Meriwether's script skips the niceties of PG-13 romantic comedies and embraces the R-rated raunchiness and sex talk -- the film once sported a working title as blunt as a barroom pickup -- but Portman has trouble keeping up, both in the dialogue and in the bedroom. She just doesn't seem like the type.
That leaves Ashton Kutcher to play the sensitive sex object, a role that fits much more snugly within his own limitations as an actor. Kutcher recently starred in the little-seen indie Spread, which was his Shampoo, cementing his status as his generation's wispier answer to Warren Beatty -- beautiful and vain, irresistible to both sexes, kind of a bimbo. Here he preens to mostly winning effect as Adam, a lowly Hollywood production assistant who wants more from a relationship than Emma, but will happily settle for casual sex in the meantime. At her behest, the two agree to "friends with benefits" status, always only a quick text message away from their next acrobatic tryst.
It will shock precisely no one in the audience to learn that Emma's aversion to love is unsustainable, though the film's repeated suggestion that modern, independent women need men to take care of them is a little old-fashioned, to put it gently. No Strings Attached offers no clear explanation about why she is so resistant to relationships, but the more pressing problem comes from Emma and Adam's arrangement itself: It doesn't create much of a spark. Only later, when Emma inevitably starts to soften up and Portman looks more comfortable in kind, does the film gain a little sweetness and chemistry.
Director Ivan Reitman, whose past triumphs (Ghostbusters, Dave) have more recently yielded to duds like Evolution and My Super Ex-Girlfriend, still has a name big enough to draw talent, and he has cast No Strings Attached to the hilt. Several of the supporting characters deserve their own, better movie: Greta Gerwig and The Office's Mindy Kaling get the sharpest one-liners as Emma's roommates; Lake Bell plays Adam's lovelorn co-worker with a bright, charmingly awkward gait that recalls a young Diane Keaton; and Kevin Kline works wonders with the bit part of Adam's ganja-smoking skirt-chaser of a father. Should Emma and Adam walk down the aisle for the sequel, they'd make it a heck of a fun wedding.