Sunday Morning Movies: No Strings Attached and Going The Distance

January 25, 2011

“I don’t want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone’s *really* hoping makes it happen. I want you to be like the guy in the rated R movie, you know, the guy you’re not sure whether or not you like yet.”

–       Trent (Vince Vaughn) in Swingers

I am aware of how bad it seems to start anything off with a quote, but it is relevant to the conversation.  It’s an amusing line, but it seems predicated on some long lost notion of the R rating giving an adult edge to a film, especially such a fluffy, fantastical genre as the romantic comedy.  The hope is that without the restrictions of a PG-13 rating, a film might be more willing to deal with adult views, particularly on sex (which can be mentioned more freely) and its relation to love.  The two films considered here are rated R, but they make no attempt to deal with their subject on any level that can even remotely be considered ‘mature’.

No Strings Attached, directed rather anonymously by Ivan Reitman, tells the story of the good-hearted Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and his “sex friends” relationship with the medical trainee Emma (Natalie Portman), whom he has met on occasion over the course of the last fifteen years.  Adam is an assistant on a high school musical TV show and is unwilling to allow the clout that his TV sitcom comedy star father (a misjudged Kevin Kline) help him in his pursuit to be that noblest of professions, the screenwriter.  Emma works at a teaching hospital 80 hours a week and lives with three other doctors, played by Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, and an outrageous gay man stereotype.  When Adam’s goofy asshole of a father begins seeing his ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond), he goes on a bender and wakes up naked in Emma’s apartment.  The morning after they have sex in the ten minutes before she has to be at work, and it is by miles the best scene in the film.  The fast, furious process of removing clothes and getting on with it is impressively unromanticized, not to say portrayed as funny or sad.  It’s mechanical but fun, and it means nothing.  There’s an admirable physicality to the way it plays out, and it is the only honest moment the film manages to produce.

As the basis for a rom-com, it’s not bad in and of itself despite it being nothing particularly new.  Genre dictates that the two will end up falling in love and while that not happening would have been more interesting, I can’t fault a film for doing what it is meant to do.  The problem comes with the hackneyed, cliché way in which it arrives at its inevitable destination, which is not only trite and unfunny, is that it is offensively conservative.  More on that shortly, but first we should go through a few of the stale genre tropes it makes no effort to circumvent.  Gerwig is wasted as the friend Patrice, whose sole purpose is to hook up with Adam’s friend Eli (Jake M. Johnson, who is just a waste).  Kaling gets off a few funny lines of charming bitchiness, but everyone else contributes nothing.  Eli and Wallace (Ludacris) are the lazily written friends who spout things like, “you are living every man’s dream!” just so the audience and laugh with recognition at the familiarity of sexed-up, brainless guys as well as make Adam look more noble for being in love.  Kline is misguided in his goofiness, and when he ends with a maudlin speech (a tear running down his cheek, even) it is unconvincing and furthermore has nothing much at all to do with the situation Adam is in.  Vanessa is perhaps the worst of the lot.  She’s got that New Money fake tan look that telegraphs her shallow, trashy nature.  The problem with this –aside from it being tired and not funny- is that it reflects badly on Adam.  Not only did he go out with this person, he spent months not fully recovering from the break-up.  If he’s so dunderheaded as to ever fall for someone like that in the first place, why should we care who he falls in love with next?  We’re not meant to think too closely about these things, but the problem with relying on these easy comedic stand-bys is that they make it difficult to engage with the central drama, especially if they’re so unfunny they seem to have been written into the script by a committee.  Speaking of the script, by first time screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether, it was originally entitled FuckBuddies and was apparently on the famed “Blacklist”, which is a shortlist of hot, new scripts in Hollywood that every studio wants.  If that’s true, Hollywood is clearly in a worse state than anybody realizes.

Clichés and dull tropes are one thing, but it’s the offensive notion central to the conflict and resolution that causes actual despair to settle in.  We can’t have Emma, so busy with her training and so concerned with the future she’s working very hard for, actually just want sex without the relationship because it’s fun.  She has to have a crippling emotional problem, in this case a fear of commitment (so often the guy’s issues) that doesn’t allow her to admit her love and connection.  The gender roles are reversed but the underlying problem is the same:  only the mentally broken don’t want a committed, monogamous relationship that will lead to marriage and kids and everything else we’re expected to desire.  The fear, I suspect, is that a woman who just wants sex (and isn’t Samantha from Sex and the City) is a harlot, and what audience would want someone like that ending up with the paragon of kindly affection that is Ashton Kutcher’s Adam?  It is never a good idea to disparage a film for not being the one you want, but surely it would have been much more interesting to have Emma be someone who genuinely didn’t believe in monogamy as opposed to someone who just says that she doesn’t.  Unfortunately that’s too difficult, so the R rating here is for the bawdy (but nudity-less!) sex and the swear words dotted around to remind us that this is “adult” and “edgy”.  The sentiments behind the script are no smarter than a particularly stupid PG rated high school comedy.

Going the Distance, starring real life partners (at the time, at least) Drew Barrymore and Justin Long as a couple who meet in New York and attempt a long distance relationship, is an unfunny, trifle of a film.  She wants to be a journalist but there are no jobs until she gets one.  He’s dissatisfied with his work at a record company until he quits and manages a band.  Everything’s middle class and fine by the end.  It features a cast of supporting characters that include Christina Applegate, Jason Sudekis, and Charlie Day, who all exist to push the nominally PG-13 treatment of the story into R-rated territory with some of the unfunniest crude humour you’re likely to hear.  There are also several abortive attempts at comic setpieces that involve dry humping on a kitchen table and having sex on a kitchen table.  The characters fall into despair over only seeing each other once every three months (which would be amazing for most people considering the days off and the expensive required) and ever so briefly think about other people but then don’t.  There is a total of one funny moment in the film, and it is a cast-off gag that is there and gone in a flash.  Natalie Morales walks up to the worryingly recognizable frat boys in a bar, says she likes one of their shirts to which he replies, “I know, it’s a Polo”.  She says he smells nice to which he responds, “Yeah, it’s Axe”.  Morales’ deadpan, focused delivery makes the scene, and yet this is pretty much her only appearance in the film.  It’s as though Nanette Burstein – previously a director of documentaries- saw a hint of quality and made sure the camera didn’t dwell on it too long lest we raise our expectations.  Long and Barrymore’s chemistry is good but the difficulties are never believable and the ending is never in doubt.  It is not worth 10 minutes much less 100.

-M

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