No Strings Attached

Directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by Elizabeth Meriwether
Starring Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Greta Gerwig, Kevin Kline

The Other Woman
Written and Directed by Don Roos
Starring Natalie Portman, Scott Cohen, Charlie Tahan, Lisa Kudrow

Now that Black Swan has become her highest-grossing non-Star Wars film to date and appears poised to win her a Best Actress trophy on Oscar night, it seems the right time to ask: Who the heck is Natalie Portman, anyway?  It’s certainly hard to think of another prominent young actress out there right now with a less defined screen persona.  On the one hand, she doesn’t possess the natural charisma of a movie star like Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon or even Anne Hathaway.  At the same time, she doesn’t vanish into her roles in the way the best character actresses do—think Tilda Swinton, Carey Mulligan or Portman’s fellow Oscar nominee, Michelle Williams.  Whenever she’s onscreen (including in Black Swan), you’re always aware that you’re watching someone named Natalie Portman playing a character, but neither that character, nor Portman herself, completely registers as a believable presence.

Portman’s lack of a recognizable screen identity has become more pronounced with the release of her first two post-Black Swan pictures, which occupy opposite ends of the acting spectrum.  The first, No Strings Attached, is a high-concept Hollywood romantic comedy vehicle that could have been built around a Witherspoon, Hathaway or (shudder) Heigl.  Meanwhile, The Other Woman is the kind of low-key indie drama that generally seeks out a Williams, Mulligan or (back when she was still acting on a regular basis) Ricci.  Instead, they each tap Portman to carry the production and in both cases it’s something of an odd fit, partly because the material is weak but also due to her own inability to completely assume the role the films demand of her.

Let’s start with No Strings Attached, which, as has already been noted elsewhere, began its life with the edgier title Fuckbuddies.  Written by Elizabeth Meriweather and directed with smooth, impersonal proficiency by Ivan Reitman, the film casts Portman as Emma, an overworked L.A. doctor with a pathological fear of commitment.  But since she has the same needs and urges as any attractive young twentysomething, she works out a “friends with benefits” arrangement with casual male acquaintance Adam (Ashton Kutcher), an aspiring TV writer currently toiling as a director’s assistant on a Glee-type high school musical series.  Whatever rough edges the original Fuckbuddies script may have had have largely been sanded away in favor of the usual rom-com conventions.  To wit: Emma and Adam each have crews of wise-cracking buddies (the overtalented Mindy Kaling and Greta Gerwig for her, the averagely talented Jake Johnson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges for him), a respected older actor puts in a dutiful appearance as an eccentric parent (Kevin Kline for him and Talia Balsam for her) and everyone constantly discusses the central couples’ personal matters—whether they’re having sex, how much sex they’re having and how awesome it is—in public at high volumes.

The only notable variation No Strings Attached offers to this tried-and-true formula is that, in this case, the girl wants to keep things casual while the guy is mooney-eyed for all the trappings that come with real coupledom, from making unironic mix tapes to post-coital spooning.  Believe it or not, this switch winds up working in Kutcher’s favor.  Usually an insufferably smug presence, the camera pitchman, expert Tweeter and sometime actor generates some genuine charm as an awkward romantic that sometimes has trouble putting the right foot forward.  Meanwhile, Emma’s brittle personality initially complements Portman’s own tendency to come across as withdrawn and reserved onscreen.  She also seems to enjoy the salty dialogue and compromising situations that Meriweather’s scripts hands her.  Indeed, a lot of the humor in No Strings Attached hinges on the sight of the one-time child star and Star Wars queen engaging in distinctly adult activities, be it commenting on the niceness of her fuck buddy’s penis or getting drunk at a holiday party and coming on to her boss.  (It’s the same joke that fueled this famous Saturday Night Live skit from a few years back, which features Portman rapping about cheating on her college exams and telling kids to suck her dick.)  While the incongruity is funny at first, it ultimately reinforces the idea that we’re watching Natalie Portman rather than a character she’s supposed to be playing.

As factory-assembled rom-coms go, No Strings Attached isn’t as dire as last year’s Killers (also starring Kutcher) or 2009’s Bride Wars.  There are several scenes that crackle with strong comic energy and some of the supporting players—particularly Gerwig and Kaling—pick up a lot of the slack whenever the movie gets too serious for its own good.  Meriweather also deserves credit for scripting a third-act romantic obstacle that actually feels appropriate to this specific situation, rather than throwing an unlikely wrench into the proceedings simply to break the couple up before their climactic reconciliation.  (One has to wonder if the original script arrived at the same conservative conclusion seen in the finished film in regards to the sustainability of a “friends with benefits” arrangement.)  But the inertia that comes with slavishly following a well-worn formula overwhelms the movie in the end.  Overcoming that demands a pair of stars who enliven the material with their mere presence and whom the audience can root for as a couple.  Neither Portman nor Kutcher ultimately meet these requirements and thus No Strings Attached remains stuck in second gear.

For all its failings, No Strings Attached is still preferable to the protracted melodramatics of The Other Woman, the latest disappointment from once promising writer/director Don Roos.  Back in 1998, Roos made a big splash with his witty dark 1998 comedy The Opposite of Sex and then squandered much of that goodwill two years later on a poorly conceived drama about survivor’s guilt called Bounce (which was notable at the time for featuring then-real life couple Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow as its pair of star-crossed lovers).  Adapted from the book Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman, The Other Woman is another death-obsessed tale, this one hinging on the sudden passing of a three-day old infant.  Her name was Isabelle and she was the first child born to Emilia Greenleaf (Portman) and her lover-turned-husband Jack (Scott Cohen), a wealthy Upper West Side attorney that ended his marriage to a prominent pediatrician (Lisa Kudrow) to be with his new family.  In the months since Isabelle’s death, Emilia has largely cut herself off from the world, seeing her friends (Lauren Ambrose and Anthony Rapp) only occasionally and keeping Jack at a distance.  And then there’s the problem of William (Charlie Tahan), Jack’s son from his previous marriage, a sheltered, overly sensitive kid that always seems to say the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time.  Early on, for example, William starts telling Emilia about a friend of his whose dad has been selling off their old stuff on eBay.  Why is he rambling on about this, she wonders?  Because, he explains in total (or is it?) innocence, maybe they could sell his baby sister’s things that way.  It’s not like she’s using them anymore, right?

If nothing else, The Other Woman makes me feel reflexively guilty for being so hard on Rabbit Hole, another depressing entry in the Dead Child movie sweepstakes.  That film was marred by some on-the-nose writing and flat supporting characters, but the central relationship between the grieving parents was quite well rendered, with a minimum of dramatic hysterics and other cheap tear-jerking tactics.  The Other Woman, on the other hand, firmly plants its feet and slaps you across the face until it wrests that precious, precious salt water from your eyes.  But the movie is so calculated, so relentless in its attempts to provoke an emotional response, the only feelings it inspires are annoyance and frustration.  The performances range from the somnambulant (Cohen, Rapp and Ambrose) to the shrill (poor Kudrow—reuniting with Roos for the third time—is stuck playing the outsized Bravo version of a Real Housewife of New York City).  As for Portman, she suffers as beautifully here as she does in her more celebrated turn in Black Swan, but this film doesn’t carry the kinetic visual charge of Darren Aronofsky’s horrorshow.  He uses the camera to trap viewers in Portman’s headspace (literally, since so much of Black Swan is shot in close-up) and that extreme closeness—and the fact that the role essentially requires her to play one emotion throughout: confused terror—lends her performance more vibrancy.  Filmed at greater remove, she defaults to the same opaque presence she’s projected in much of her other work, from the Star Wars prequels to V for Vendetta to…well, No Strings Attached. Portman has yet to deliver a performance that could be described as genuinely bad, but I’m still waiting for her to show us exactly what she’s capable of.

No Strings Attached is in theaters now.  The Other Woman opens in limited release on Friday and is also available via IFC’s Video-on-Demand service.