I could talk about the particulars of No Strings Attached but frankly it’s too boring to discuss. What has happened to romantic comedies? These used to be great. The quick-witted banter with Cary Grant. The inventive plots of Preston Sturges. The dynamic characters of the 70s. What happened and how is this movie guilty of every single one of its lazy clichés? To fix this, just follow these rules.
1. Cast the movie not the poster.
So two young attractive people decide to become friends with benefits. Don’t just pick two random attractive actors. First off all, let’s make sure they have at least a little bit of chemistry. Just a little bit. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman have zero fizz and I can’t even tell if they like each other let alone love each other. Also pick actors who actually fit the characters. Don’t just shuffle the 20 something Hollywood types and decide these two haven’t been in a movie yet. Of course for that to happen…
2. Have characters.
There is nothing to the leads. Nothing. Aside from “they like to have sex” there is really nothing to describe these leads. The film has a few things like “she doesn’t want her heart broken” but that doesn’t count because that’s dialog she says about herself constantly. That’s not actually seen in the film. The best romantic movies are ones where the audience falls for the characters as well. Guys can talk about how awesome Annie Hall and Amelie are because those are actual characters. Girls talk about Mr. Darcy beyond just “he’s hot.” The audience needs to swoon as well or else it’s just an incredible dull experience.
3. Actually try with the flirting.
Part of this ties into actually having characters, but the romantic scenes need to try as well. (Am I asking too much for a movie to try a little bit? I hope not.). The following things need to stop happening. The girl is really good at something the guy likes. (No Strings Attached has her getting three hole-in-ones in miniature golf during a montage.) The girl is interested in the guy because he’s randomly vulnerable. (In a flashback Ashton Kutcher is crying about his parent’s divorce.) Also while on dates, the duo laughs at each other's jokes, regardless of the fact they're not funny. (The entire movie.)
4. Have a lot of characters.
It’s the new standard in Hollywood to have two attractive leads and make them really dull. So the only way to make this a romantic comedy is to fill the supporting cast with talented actors and solid comedians. Yet instead of giving them great characters to play off of, they just have to be themselves and improvise everything. This movie has Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Ludacris (why not), Mindy Kaling, and Jake M. Johnson. None of these are actual characters. Kline is old and says sexual stuff! Bell is CRAZY! The others…nothing. There is literally nothing to describe the rest of them. The best friend archtype is the worst because it leads to…
5. Never have a scene where the lead repeats the plot to the best friend ever again.
This is become unbearable. This happens so many times during every romantic comedy. There is a comedic tentpole scene. In this case Ashton Kutcher gives Natalie Portman a balloon for a good job at sex. (Wondering why I’m not calling them by their character names? See point 1.) Then Ashton Kutcher talks to Johnson about it. Then he talks to Ludacris about it. They each give their one joke. Then we have to see Natalie Portman talk to Mindy Kaling about it. MOVE THE PLOT FORWARD. We clearly understood what each character thought about that scene and the best friends won’t give any actual advice. To have these characters only exist for the sole purpose of being silly sages is infuriating.
6. Don’t let the entire world revolve around the leads.
This one obviously has exceptions. (Arthur for example.) Yet it makes no sense that the entire TV show Ashton Kutcher works on would stop everything and throw him a surprise birthday party. He’s just an assistant on the show! (Don’t argue that Kevin Kline made it possible, because that doesn’t excuse the scene.) Everywhere these two go, they are the beloved ones in the room. Despite having low paying jobs, they live in GIANT houses. Yes, I get that we have to accept some disbelief that these two have trouble finding love, but if you want the audience to relate to the characters at all bring something down to reality. It’s not even glamorous anymore! Everyone has the same houses in these movies.
7. At least pretend it might not end the way we think.
The whole concept of “will they or won’t they” only ends with they will in Hollywood. With a lot of the way they were filmed in the 60s or 70s things felt a little more unpredictable. Scenes sometimes only existed to give a lived-in quality to these characters and their lives. It wasn’t just a cookie-cutter script. The three-act format is so calculated with this genre, everybody knows what’s going to happen. Was there any doubt that Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher were going to get into a fight about 2/3rds in? Was there any doubt what will happen next? You can survey the audience before the movie starts and they can probably give you the whole film. If you want the ending to matter, even a little bit, make the elements real. Make the fight believable. Just give a little bit of uncertainty!
8. Stop using homosexuality as an empty punchline.
Seriously. It’s just really old now.
9. If you’re going to be ‘R’ be ‘R’.
This is an R-rated romantic comedy about two people having sex. So there is no nudity and no graphic talk about sex (just a few dick jokes). If you have the chance to be closer to reality, take it. It just feels so contrived to actresses use the sheets in just the right way. This goes for the guys too. There is a painfully unfunny scene where Ashton Kutcher wakes up on a couch naked and Natalie Portman’s roommates are messing with him. Despite dancing naked the night before (off screen of course), he is shy so he keeps covering his little Kelso as he walks across the house. Not every film needs to be really raunchy, but when that’s literally your plot and there is nothing to edit for TV it just feels ridiculous.
10. Don’t spend this much money.
This could solve it all. This movie cost $25 million according to Box Office Mojo. Why? Okay I get actor salaries, but this could still be under $10 million. Then things probably won’t look as shiny. Every shot is too perfect and too lit. This is what’s adding to everything feeling familiar and predictable. People didn’t know how the movie Once was going to end because it didn’t look like it was The Back-Up Plan, The Bounty Hunter, Life As We Know It, Dear John, You Again, The Last Song, The Switch, Killers or Valentine’s Day. If you keep the focus on the characters, the plot, the romance, and the comedy then you have a movie. Not this incredibly lazy and forgettable whatever.