FRIENDLY CARNAL KNOWLEDGE Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman try desperately not to fall in love in No Strings Attached
Credit: Dale Robinette

Can men and women be sex buddies without romantic attachment getting in the way? Of course not — this is America! Or so, at least, teaches No Strings Attached, a hedging, conservative romantic comedy directed with generational bafflement by Ghostbusters‘ Ivan Reitman. The movie continues the long tradition of Hollywood rom-coms, from When Harry Met Sally… to Knocked Up, that bait with amusing, naughty sex and then switch to reassuring romantic commitment. In this variation, marketed for the age of hookups and friends with benefits, a pretty, romance-averse doctor-in-training named Emma (Natalie Portman) sets the rules governing her relationships: no cuddling, no morning-after breakfasts, no learning. Just boinking.

At first this is a Penthouse dream come true for a certain primo hottie named Adam (Ashton Kutcher, in his zone). He’s the son of a vain, babe-chasing former sitcom star (Kevin Kline, whooping it up for his old Dave director). And the son has absorbed lessons in bed-hopping from the master. But the arrangement quickly proves unworkable. To be sure, the sex is super-duper — or so we’re told in one of those montages of frantically gymnastic but coy couplings suitable for an actress as essentially refined and modest as Portman. It’s just that, well, Adam turns out to be too lovable, honorable, and emotionally open a gentleman for the cut-to-the-chase terms Emma offers. (The same darn tangles ensued when Jake Gyllenhaal boinked Anne Hathaway in Love & Other Drugs.)

I’d love to know what happened when Emma met Adam in the early drafts of this first screenplay by Elizabeth Meriwether, a lively, funny playwright (her play Heddatron mixes Ibsen and robots). As it is, the current version bears the fingerprints of too many note-giving kibitzers who said, How about a learning moment for Adam’s dad? Don’t forget to include a Prius somewhere in the plot — no Hollywood movie today is approved without one! And so Emma takes the road most traveled, coming to realize what everyone in the audience knew the minute Portman and Kutcher signed on to the pic: The lady is much too traditional to live a stringless life.

Really, what Emma wants is to love and be loved like all the supporting female characters who wander through the movie. To which I say, hooray for the other ladies. Just when we tire of admiring the simulation of another triumph in the sack, along comes Juno‘s wonderful, feisty, warmhearted Olivia Thirlby as Emma’s younger sister, who is radiantly, unconflictedly happy about marrying her beau. Mumblecore honey and Greenberg star Greta Gerwig generates fresh air as Emma’s roommate and fellow hospital intern, a deadpan truth-teller whose quips don’t keep her from appreciating a man who appreciates her. And The Office’s inimitable Mindy Kaling enlivens her scenes as another roomie/doctor with a soft heart beneath her sexytalk. Adam is cute and all, but the real strings worth tying are those that bind this sisterhood of sharp, interesting, sexually active women together. Where’s their starring movie? C+