POSTED ON JANUARY 26, 2011:
Make That Commitment
No Strings Attached an easy booty call, while Rabbit Hole proves pretty deep
No Strings Attached reminds me that February is right around the corner and I have a lot of this type of thing to look forward to: formulaic romantic comedies with otherworldly attractive people navigating the well-worn, almost comfortingly familiar narrative pathways that lead to the story's reliably neat fruition (one that's as predictable as 90 percent of what came before it). The only real variables lie in how well you like the guy and girl in question. So from the second I saw Ashton Kutcher's Coolpix face mugging at Natalie Portman on the theatrical poster for No Strings Attached -- one that looked more like a Sketchers ad than anything else -- I already kind of wanted to hate it.
Laid Faith. Predictable but not hateable, No Strings Attached was directed by Ivan Reitman and explores a woman played by Natalie Portman who wants relations without relationship entanglements.
Add to that, the fact Ivan Reitman hasn't directed a funny movie since Ghostbusters (though I have much nostalgia/love for it) and wrap that up in a story that seems quaintly surprised that some women just want to get laid without the entanglements of a conventional relationship and the result was some drastically lowered expectations. At least there was the prospect of Portman running around a little less than fully clothed to cling to.
But, No Strings Attached was a bit like a doctor's appointment. You (and by you I mean me) kind of dread it before you go, only to wonder why, after it's done, you were so uptight about it in the first place.
Ashton Kutcher is Adam, a television production assistant on a Glee knockoff, who runs into his first flame from summer camp, Emma (Portman). After a drunken night out he wakes up (naked, of course) to find himself in the house Emma shares with her roommates, Shira (The Office's Mindy Kaling) and Patrice (Greta Gerwig). Adam and Emma suffer from an abundance of sexiness that quickly results in actual sex. After their quick tryst, Emma starts setting the boundaries.
After putting in 80 hours a week at the hospital, Emma only wants the proverbial booty call -- despite the fact her sister (Olivia Thirlby) is on the verge of marital bliss -- owing to her standard issue schizoid predilection for emotional distance from men who are perfect for her (i.e. the type that only exist in movies). But invariably Emma gets sucked into Adam's personal life as he attempts to deal with his father (Kevin Kline), who has started dating Adam's last girlfriend, and sure enough Emma begins to question her self-imposed, utterly arbitrary singlehood.
Guess how it ends.
The script, by debut feature writer Elizabeth Meriwether, is definitely an L.A. story. Everyone's well off, good looking, has a quota of culturally and sexually balanced friends, and generally come off like they're on 90210 (the film even tips it's hat with a Peach Pit reference). Sometimes I think these things are designed to make you want to move to California.
But there were a couple of good laughs to be had, though not in the abundance required to really make No Strings Attached worth it's overlong runtime. It's a story that wants to coast on the charisma of its characters to forgive the formula and if they were more believable and the script had a sharper comedic sense, it might have worked.
Surprisingly, Reitman returns to vague form here and shoots a nice looking flick with a pleasant, easy going sensibility, which can't really hurt a film that's already wallowing in narrative mediocrity. He gives the proceedings a discernable pulse, which is more than can be said for Ron Howard and his recent Dilemma. Compared to far more toxic Reitman bombs like Evolution or Super Ex-Girlfriend, No Strings Attached actually seems adept.
Portman is fine, though she seems to be doing the "one for art, one for commerce" trade off here (both this and Black Swan are in the Top 10 this week) and the surrounding cast are all agreeable enough with standouts being Gerwig with her considerable cuteness and comic timing, Lake Bell as a possible alternate for Adam's affections, and Kevin Kline as Adam's mid-life afflicted dad who is still milking his celebrity and a signature line from the show that made him famous. They're an able cast in search of less vacuous characters. In this regard, though, Kutcher is perfectly cast. He has the range of a chipmunk tossing a medicine ball.
Ultimately, though, while No Strings Attached falls short of success as a comedy it really could have been far more painful. I'm really not the easiest to please with these things, which means most of you will probably love it.
John Cameron Mitchell has directed three wildly diverse films over the last ten years, opening the decade with his great transsexual ode to rock and roll dreams, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and then pushing the envelope in 2006 with the not-so-successful, Shortbus, the tale of a group of New Yorkers maneuvering through the dangerous waters of love and fulfillment at an underground club known for its eclectic denizens and sexual freedom.
His third, and latest, Rabbit Hole, stands as further evidence not just of Mitchell's skill with a cast but his refusal to cater to any one mode of storytelling. A far cry from the energetic lunacy of Hedwig or the romantic pathos (with money shots) of Shortbus, Rabbit Hole is an artful character study of a Queens couple attempting to recover from the tragic, accidental death of their only child.
Tall Tail. With Rabbit Hole, adapted from the play of the same name by the playwright himself, David Lindsay-Abaire, John Cameron Mitchell crafts a film that doesn’t feel like a play.
Becca (Nicole Kidman, in rare form here) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are the grieving parents who deal in quite different ways with their loss. Howie tries to get Becca to open up in a support group for parents of dead children while Becca deals with the hole in her heart by slowly but surely getting rid of any reminders of her lost son. Howie wants to bare his soul in catharsis while Becca erects a wall around her emotions, though it can't completely contain her cynical anger. She quickly decides "group" is not for her, preferring instead to try and find solace in her sister's (Tammy Blanchard) pregnancy and her somewhat contentious relationship with her mother (Diane Wiest). When that is not enough, she begins mysteriously shadowing a high-school boy named Jason (Miles Tiller) who has an intimate connection to Becca and Howie.
Howie, who has stayed in the support group, begins a weed-fueled friendship with Gaby (Sandra Oh) an eight year veteran of the group ("Professional wallowers," Becca calls them) that soon begins to evolve into something else as Becca's sexual indifference to Howie, and their conflicting ways of dealing with their loss drives a wedge between the two, pushing Howie toward the lighthouse of Gaby's fetchingly free-spirited wiles.
With Rabbit Hole, adapted from the play of the same name by the playwright himself, David Lindsay-Abaire, John Cameron Mitchell crafts a film that doesn't feel like a play -- as can sometimes happen in more literal interpretations of more self-contained works, though that's not necessarily a bad thing, as with Mamet -- utilizing a vibrant visual sense that breathes life into the environment these characters exist in, adding cinematic weight to the ordinary and a providing a fine canvas on which to paint his well drawn subjects. But Mitchell also accentuates the narrative devices of the play, which deliberately peel back the story's layers to reveal past events and connect its synapses, building a nervous system of living, breathing moments that accumulate dramatic weight and emotional engagement.
Of course this is due, in no small part, to the stellar performances Mitchell elicits from his cast, most pleasingly from Nicole Kidman. The last time she's done work this solid and interesting was in 2003's Dogville, Lars Von Trier's 3-hour, period tale shot entirely on a blank stage. It's as though the smaller and more stripped down the production is, the better she gets. Put her in The Invasion and ... not so much. Here she turns in a detailed and disciplined performance, skillfully revealing flashes of Becca's inner turmoil through the occasional cracks of her stoic defenses. Bet on her name being listed next to Michelle Williams' and Natalie Portman's in this week's Oscar nominations.
Diane Wiest is predictably wonderful as Becca's mother, Nat, whose brother's death allows Becca a window into the future of her own loss. Sandra Oh gives a fine turn as Gaby, the passing ship in Howie's stoned nights, capitalizing on her free-spirited affability and exotic sexiness.
Eckhart has as equally a meaty role as Kidman with Howie and he's typically solid at breathing life into it. While the character is the more emotive of the two, Eckhart plays him with the same understatement Kidman utilizes, rendering both characters all the more tangible and real. There's really not a bad performance to be found, including the always-welcome Giancarlo Esposito.
While it sounds like kind of heavy story, Rabbit Hole is surprisingly heartening in its way of telling it, peppered with some endearing and genuine character moments that never feel forced, no doubt due to John Cameron Mitchell's assured directorial hand -- one to keep your eye on.
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