Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached. Image courtesy Paramount Pictures.
Since the first time I saw a preview for No Strings Attached, I had a hunch what director Ivan Reitman was attempting to achieve. This was going to be a progressive romantic comedy; instead of featuring voracious cads bagging bimbos or letting down clingy, wholesome girls desperate for commitment, this would showcase an empowered woman who demanded sex without a relationship. By featuring a rational, self-controlled protagonist across from a submissive male lead, this atypical departure would provide enlightened commentary about the traditional woman-as-object storyline.
From the first moment, it appeared my suspicions would be confirmed. The film opens with a flashback scene in which Adam (Ashton Kutcher) cries about his parents' divorce while Emma (Natalie Portman) bristles, awkwardly puts her arm around his shoulder, and declares, "look, I'm not really an affectionate person." In just the first ten minutes, this gender roles reversal is concretely established. Forward ten years, we have Emma wearing long johns to a sexy pajamas party, being chastised for using the overtly politically correct term "lover" to describe someone's boyfriend, and shamelessly bragging about her intelligence and education. On the other hand we have Adam who cries, gives lingering, unsolicited hugs to strangers, and appears incapable of refraining from describing every emotion and feeling he ever has.
Okay, we get it.
The pair reunites in the present day when Adam (again emotive and crying) drunk dials Emma after a breakup. In a scene identical to the opener, she awkwardly comforts him, solidifying this dynamic. Somehow this encounter segues right to passionate sex and thus begins their no-strings-attached relationship.
As could be predicted, we watch Adam become attached while Emma declares that she can't be in a relationship because of her eloquently-described "emotional peanut allergy" which makes her bad at "communication, talking," and other "relationship stuff."
So it's not her demanding schooling or career aspirations keeping her from committing like one might expect; no, it's her barely-contextualized emotional issues (we learn bewilderingly late in the film that perhaps this has something to do with her father's death, but the issue is never explored). In fact, Emma even puts her job at risk for the sake of her casual relationship when she has sex on an operating table and in a hospital supply closet, among other places.
The closest Emma and Adam get to a genuine romantic moment occurs when she's subdued by her period (of course) at the same time as the rest of her medical resident roommates (including, offensively, a gay man) who, once stoic and capable, are now reduced to affected paralysis, whining for cupcakes. He makes her soup and a mixtape, a gesture that causes her to relent just enough to allow him to spoon her—with her clothes on (which is "ten times worse," she enlightens us upon waking and apparently resolving her feminine moment of weakness).
On the whole, Emma seems alternately robotic and hysterical. One gets the impression that she's never had a single meaningful interpersonal relationship, romantic or otherwise. Spending most of the film dead-eyed and expressionless, the only times her character feels believable (which are also the only times she gets any laughs) are instances where she verbally attacks other women. In an attempt to establish Emma as not-your-typical-romantic-comedy-pushover, her character becomes immature and off-putting.
Instead of defying stereotypes, this film actually reinforces them. Conventional gender roles (in Hollywood and elsewhere) establish that men are confident, rational, and want to use people for sex; women are submissive and desperate for commitment. Here, the only deviation we have from the traditional social and/or romantic comedy formula is that this time we have a girl doing the boy things, and a boy doing the girl things. Which may be ironic and even hilarious at times, but is certainly no less stereotypical.
In fact, what's even more troubling is that while Adam's character is earnest and endearing (he's still rich, successful, and masculine-looking, after all), Emma is lonely and miserable, which only further suggests that perhaps women should just "be the girl" and let men take care of them (which Adam tries to do, emotionally, romantically, and financially, even when fulfilling the effeminate role).
While No Strings Attached is entertaining and comical (most remarkably with Kevin Kline successfully filling the get-your-boyfriend-to-see-it-with-you role as Adam's outrageously self-indulgent father), anyone expecting a more progressive deviation from the traditional romantic comedy formula will be disappointed.