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No Strings Attached

Forget Black Swan - Natalie Portman's real crowning performance is to be found in the romantic comedy No Strings Attached, in which director Ivan Reitman asks her to convey sincere, unqualified affection for Ashton Kutcher. Portman, much to her credit, gamely complies, and though she may not have the emaciated figure, bloody nails and bandaged ankles to tell of her labors, the psychic scars must no doubt be just as severe.

Exhibiting strong chick-flick leanings and a rambunctious, soft-R comic tone (i.e., lots of F-bombs, some menstrual humor, and a few shots of Kutcher's naked ass), No Strings Attached is built around a basic relationship role-reversal: The dude, Adam (Kutcher), longs for a deeper, lasting commitment; the chick, Emma (Portman), insists on keeping matters purely physical. Emma's motive is a practical one: As a doctor-to-be, her busy residency schedule, with its 80-hour work weeks and intensive exam preparations, precludes a serious relationship. But alas, a woman has certain needs (foreplay, apparently, not being among them), and who better to fulfill them than Kutcher's non-threatening boy-toy?

Thus a "friends with benefits" arrangement is cemented, whereupon the ripcord is to be pulled on the occasion that either of them develops stronger feelings. This does not last long, for soon Adam is cloyingly lobbying for escalation. Emma demurs - not out of disinterest, we are told, but because she's intimacy-averse and afraid of a broken heart. Why else would she resist a more permanent attachment to someone like Adam?

Perhaps it's because Adam, as played by Kutcher, is about as interesting as cabbage. And yet No Strings Attached would have us believe he's some kind of floppy-haired Albert Schweitzer. This despite the fact that his greatest aspiration in life is to join the writing staff of a High School Musical-esque television series, the shallow inanity of which is one of the film's recurring jokes. In vain support of his cause, the filmmakers decorate Adam's apartment with various props - vintage posters, books about 1920s movies, a guitar that is occasionally picked up but never actually played - that hint at a depth that Kutcher himself never manifests.

Still, Portman sells us on Adam and Emma's inevitable union with every ounce of her not inconsiderable talent. (And her comic chops are legit - as those who've glimpsed her appearances on SNL and Funny or Die can attest.) But she asks too much. And Elizabeth Meriweather's script, while witty and stocked with some keen observations on the evolving nature of relationships in the modern age, becomes weighed down by sentiment unbecoming an R-rated comedy not directed by Judd Apatow. In the end, Kutcher seals the increasingly contrived deal with the climactic line, "I'm warning you: Come one step closer, and I'm never letting you go," (I'm paraphrasing, but not loosely) by which time the film's already lost its grip. rated this film 3 stars.