I had a rule. I don’t see movies I strongly suspect to be bad. I broke the rule. Friends with Benefits (2011) disappointed to such a degree that I felt obliged to see if its doppelganger had succeeded where it had failed. Is there anything that can be salvaged from the ideal of friends with a physical relationship or is the concept too complex or nuanced to survive film logic? There is a wide trap set in romantic comedies. The bait is physical relationship, the pit is friendship, and the snare is the Great Truth: marriage is a friendship first, physical second. Can it possibly be any other way? Let’s find out.
Emma (eventually played by Natalie Portman) meets Adam (eventually played by Ashton Kutcher) at Camp Somethingorother and he makes a clumsy pass at her, which she denies. Ten years later, they meet at a frat party in Ann Arbor (and for some reason Adam thinks that makes him underachieving) because Emma’s friend Patrice (Greta Gerwig) is there and he goes to her father’s funeral. Four years later, they meet again, this time Adam’s got a girlfriend, and they’re all living in LA. One year later, Adam finds out that his ex is now with his father (Kevin Kline). Feeling all kinds of emotions, he goes through his phone to hook up with someone. He wakes up naked in Emma’s apartment (they hadn’t done it, but you knew that). You know what happens next.
I had planned to start with a blank “No.” I don’t feel like I can do that. It isn’t because they threaded the needle. Whatever the opposite of threading the needle is, they did that. They fell right into the Truth pit. Or snare, I called it a snare. Okay, better metaphor, the pit is truth, the snare is physical relationship, and the bait is friendship. The only reason this isn’t a disgusting piece of filth is because they’ve given a reason for the non-romantic, physical relationship. Emma has heinous commitment issues. They even went so far as to give the root of those issues. It’s chronologically confused, but it’s there.
So on points for premise-execution alone, No Strings Attached (2011) beats Friends With Benefits. While in both movies the pair are obviously well suited to one another—in that they are without serious damage though in that very strange narcissism of our day think that they do—at least in this movie, it isn’t willful obtusity that extends the narrative.
Second win on points for No Strings Attached comes in the number of LOL moments. Did I just write that? Yes, yes I did. Man, there are some really funny parts in this movie. Elizabeth Meriwether, the writer, can definitely come up with the situations and, in the right hands, the dialogue is naturally funny. But it’s hit or miss. Technically, everything is hit or miss, but this is laugh or eye-roll binary. I’m going to blame everyone but Meriwether for most of the eye-roll parts.
The lady comedy is very good. The period mix was hilariously punny. I now know that Greta Gerwig is pretty darn good when she isn’t playing fey-weird. That’s good to know. There are some serious clangers that Olivier couldn’t have resurrected like “You should know if you come any closer, I’m not letting you go!” Heauuughhhh. Flush. Gargle. Spit. Wipe.
The editing, though, is miserable. In fact, Ivan Reitman, the director, has a lot to answer for. He left his actors out in the cold all the time. The strongest laughs, for me, probably should have come when the guys—Kutcher, Ludacris, and Jake M. Johnson—get together, but a lot of the time, the timing was way off. If you’re filming, there’s no excuse for that. I think that’s because (at least) two of the three are not actually comic actors. Take that how you will.
Friends With Benefits, thus, wins in these categories. It has a clearer, stronger spine of a plot and both actors have strong comic instincts and good dramatic abilities. Here, the plot follows the relationship rather than milestones along the way. This doesn’t have the one major subplot to create contrast, but rather has two or three vague subplots that just keep the story alive. This movie also didn’t provide the needed lead up to the inevitable break-up. There should be ramp, not a ladder. I need to feel the demise coming, not be boldly slapped in the face with it once before B-Day. Friends With Benefits definitely took its time. But that was easy because it limited focus the main players and their parents, whereas No Strings Attached tried to build a life around the characters with friends. Good instinct, but they didn’t execute.
I’m less angry with Natalie Portman than I was. She still did Your Highness (2011), so we still won’t be speaking for a while, but I think I can re-friend her on Facebook. Both choices were a mistake, no doubt, but her mistake on No Strings Attached was not demanding someone with actual skills to be her man—Ashton, dude, you were fine in The Butterfly Effect (2004), but you need to know when to act normal and when to punch the lines.
Wait, where was Cary Elwes? I love that guy. He was the bearded doctor? They disguised him. What’s that?