Critical Mass: 'No Strings Attached'
Back in December, when critics everywhere were lavishing praise upon Natalie Portman's performance in "Black Swan," she appeared to have a lock on the best actress Oscar. But then the trailer for "No Strings Attached" was released, and a chill wind blew through Hollywood. Suddenly, pundits everywhere were calling this Ivan Reitman-directed romantic comedy "Natalie Portman's 'Norbit' " and predicting that Portman's award season fate would parallel that of Eddie Murphy in 2007, when the "Dreamgirls" star had his award dreams shattered by the trailers for him in drag and in a fat suit. (The double death!)
So now that "No Strings Attached" is out and in the wild, how is it faring among critics? Is it the atrocious train wreck that Portman supporters feared it would be?
Well, it's bad. But Portman's awards team can rest easy: It's not nearly as bad as "Norbit."
The problem, at least according to The Times' Betsy Sharkey, is that "an obsession with raunchy one-liners trips everything up, turning a clever conceit into something closer to a sleazy, cheesy affair."
Sharkey makes sure the blame is spread evenly, with the burden not landing too heavily on any one player. But she does bring up the specter of "Norbit," however subtly, when she writes, "this will not be the performance that Portman is remembered for (though it does make for some interesting coupling comparisons coming as it does amid the Oscar push for "Black Swan.")"
Slate's Dana Stevens doesn't mention the word "Norbit," nor does she discuss Portman's current Oscar-worthy status, but she has nothing but contempt for "No Strings Attached," and that's even after she admits that she grades romantic comedies on a curve! She says, "it's an inoffensive bore with occasional R-rated sex scenes that strain for cutesy shock value."
Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum avoids delving into awards season punditry in her pan and she also chooses to avoid assigning blame to anyone by name -- her finger-pointing goes to unnamed studio executives. She writes, "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."
A.O. Scott mixes all kinds of current events, including Portman's recent Golden Globes appearance, perhaps to avoid having to talk too much about the film itself, which he deems "forgettable." However, Scott does have the distinction of discovering this fun cocktail party tidbit about Portman: "She may be the only Golden Globe-winning actress to simulate sex on screen with two former members of the cast of 'That '70s Show.' "
Andrew O'Hehir goes easier on the film in his Salon review than his contemporaries, but he still finds quite a bit to dislike. His chief problem is that the film just isn't sexy. He poses the essential question: "But when people have sex in a movie -- that wasn't, you know, made in Hungary and meant to convince you that life is meaningless -- isn't it a good idea to make it seem kind of hot?" Indeed, it is.
Leave it to Mina Hochberg, writing in AMNY, to finally put the fears to rest when she flat-out states, "It’s no 'Norbit.' " She even goes on to say, "In the moments when it's not cringingly bad, it can be a fun romantic comedy with glimmers of resonance." Unfortunately, glimmers are all they remain.
-- Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in "No Strings Attached." Credit: Dale Robinette / Paramount Pictures.