Anyone still doubting Natalie Portman's inevitable Oscar for Black Swan should take a look at No Strings Attached. The two movies couldn't be further apart on the art scale, and Portman's roles are about as far as any actor can stretch.
As darkly natured as Black Swan urged Portman to turn, No Strings Attached taps into a lighter side that her movies haven't explored much. She's equally captivating as a libertine with commitment issues, even though Mr. Right is right there. Not exactly an original rom-com character, but it's performed by Portman with breezy commitment. She makes a so-so script better without seeming to try.
Portman plays Emma, an emergency room physician bumping into Adam (Ashton Kutcher) through the years before diving into a one-night stand. The sex is good, so she decides to make it a regular occasion with, of course, no strings attached. But there's no way that two people this pretty and compatible can remain apart for more than 110 minutes. Knowing where all this snappy sex talk is heading is the movie's sole problem.
But it's tough to complain, with Portman and Kutcher — who is thisclose to being that matinee idol he threatens to be — swapping Superbad-level wisecracks while genuinely appearing attracted to each other. Or with Kevin Kline stealing his scenes as Adam's pot-smoking dad, who's sleeping with his son's former lover. Everyone in No Strings Attached is a joke machine; good timing makes that seem less mechanical.
It's also nice to see director Ivan Reitman try something besides grasping for Ghostbusters straws, as with Evolution and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Perhaps the success of his son Jason with character-driven dramedy (Juno, Up in the Air) rubbed off on the old man.
No Strings Attached doesn't revolutionize the romantic comedy like (500) Days of Summer, or even match the Farrellys or Judd Apatow for clever smut. But it is cheerful raunch delivered by a solid cast, especially Portman, who is now officially my super next girlfriend.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 8893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.