Ivan Reitman, master of the high-concept, big-budget Hollywood comedy (Ghostbusters, Dave) would seem an unlikely candidate to direct No Strings Attached, an extremely low-concept, low-key romantic comedy of contemporary sexual mores centered on the dating foibles of attractive nerds. Fully devoid of the fantasy contrivance that often sets a Reitman film in motion, Strings is, for the most part, extremely narrow in focus: It's "just" about two people in lust struggling to put away their respective baggage in order to have a real relationship with each other. Its thesis is that for those of us who are not, say, academics-turned-paranormal-exterminators or regular Joes forced to impersonate a coma-bound president, love in itself can feel fairly high-concept.
Adam (Ashton Kutcher), a production assistant on a High School Musical-like series who would rather be a writer, drunkenly texts every girl in his phone and wakes up the next morning at the apartment of Emma (Natalie Portman), a medical resident with whom he'd had a couple of near-misses at summer camp and college. The pair begin rendezvousing during her off hours, and the more she insists she doesn't believe in romance and warns him against falling in love, the harder he pushes to change her mind.
In fact, Adam is such perfect, persistent boyfriend material that the film repeatedly makes a joke out of it, as in a wonderfully strange scene built around the good-natured support he offers Emma and her roommates when the whole household locks monthly cycles. That one of the film's best gags involves a menstruation-themed mix CD including Frank Sinatra's "I've Got the World on a String" hints at its essentially harmless R-rated tone, but Elizabeth Meriwether's script is sharp when it's skewering the foibles of female insecurity. Emma and roommate Patrice (Greta Gerwig) are not the passive neurotics of so many contemporary chick flicks — they're aggressive and declarative, even when confused. They're also frat-party veterans who are so unfamiliar with anything like traditional romance that when it comes along, they're not quite sure what to do with it. While Emma resists, callously suggesting to Adam that they each sleep around rather than submit to their growing intimacy, Patrice enthusiastically — if awkwardly — embraces it.
Very little happens in this film that couldn't realistically happen in the lives of actual beautiful-but-brainy, non-obnoxiously moneyed and ambitious 20-somethings circa now, and at times, No Strings Attached feels almost shockingly attuned to the particular angst of its time and place. Emma's third-act flight from Adam's feelings would play as a predictable beat in a rom-com that only wanted to tear its lovers apart so it could bring them together again; it's to Meriwether and Reitman's credit that here it feels organic, a testament to the difficulty of accepting love at face value in a culture in which artificiality is the norm, sincere feelings are foreign enough to be frightening, and old-fashioned romance can seem like a suspicious affect.
The uneasy tension between the natural and the contrived is embodied in Reitman's well-chosen real L.A. locations. Feelings that can no longer be contained come spewing out in an outdoor mall, backdropped with a blur of neon signs; a relationship fissure opens within the tight corridors of Chris Burden's "Urban Light" installation in front of LACMA. These vibrant emotional duets set within the city's highly contrived public spaces subtly sketch Los Angeles as a place where the real is often hiding in plain sight among the profoundly synthetic.
The idea of keeping it real in an artificial climate is mirrored by Meriwether's script, which takes a moribund stock genre skeleton and animates it with multilayered characters who speak in the casual cadences of real people.
The film's one major misstep is a subplot involving an improbable rivalry between Adam and his dad (Kevin Kline), an aging star deep in midlife crisis — and a blatant device to explain Adam's romantic resolve as a son's rebellion, as well as a vehicle for the film's general sympathy for the introspective outsiders waging the good fight (both professionally and personally) against Hollywood assholery. Which is ironic, because every time this story strain bubbles up, it leaves a shtick stain that reeks of crass Hollywood conventionality. It certainly seems at odds with Meriwether's larger and highly successful project: fitting realistic life into the structures of Hollywood genre, and confidently making the case that the tsuris of just being 26 and trying to figure out how to love and be loved is conflict enough.