"No Strings Attached" begins with an intriguing premise: A guy and a girl agree to have sex wherever they want, whenever they want, without all those pesky emotions getting in the way. This is apparently what the kids these days, with their rock 'n' roll music and their video games, refer to as being "friends with benefits."
What's intriguing about it is that the girl in the equation, a young doctor played by Natalie Portman, is the one who suggests this arrangement, and the guy, an aspiring TV writer played by Ashton Kutcher, is the one who breaks the rules and falls in love. It's a reversal of traditional gender roles, and an indication that we might be in for something fresh, daring and different.
Except, we're not.
This romantic comedy from Ivan Reitman - the first film he's directed since the less-than-super "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" from 2006 - falls into all the usual traps. Of course, you have to have obstacles in this kind of movie. Something has to keep the characters apart before they can enjoy their ultimate reconciliation.
But the fear of commitment that plagues Portman's character is enough of a contrivance without all the additional troubles that get piled on. Letting the tension evolve naturally from the insecurities of relatable, well-developed figures would have been preferable, but once Kutcher's character goes all soft and gooey, the movie does too.
For a while, though, the very modern relationship that writer Elizabeth Meriwether lays out for us has a snappy, spirited energy and an appealing, unexpected raunchy streak.
Portman's Emma and Kutcher's Adam first hooked up as awkward adolescents at summer camp, then ran into each other again 10 years later at a fraternity party, and then again a few more years later in Los Angeles as attractive adults who are both up-and-coming in their careers. Emma works 80 hours a week as a doctor in residence, then comes home to wisecracking roommates played by Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling and Guy Branum, among the well-cast supporting players. Adam works as an assistant on a peppy, "Glee"-type series, having grown up around television as the son of a legendary actor, played pompously by Kevin Kline. (Lake Bell is dead-on as a driven, high-strung producer on the show, who's secretly smitten by Adam but too much of a social moron to act on her feelings.)
But Kline, who starred as a regular guy who pretends to be the U.S. president in one of Reitman's smartest and most winning films, 1993's "Dave," doesn't get much to work with here. And that's one of the movie's greatest downfalls. His character is a cliche - an aging womanizer clinging to his youth - and pop culture references involving his interest in Burning Man and Lil' Wayne feel uncomfortable and forced.
Adam's dad also steals away his latest girlfriend, which initially is what sends Adam into a drunken tailspin and inspires him to say yes to Emma's no-hassle plan. Text messaging helps facilitate their trysts; as Adam's friends point out, "Where r u?" is so much more than just a question intended to determine someone's location.
Portman is intelligent and confident here as she calls all the shots, and while Kutcher is in his usual agreeable puppy-dog mode - and doesn't appear to have been challenged in the slightest by this material - the two make a sufficiently likable duo. Nothing spectacular, but acceptable.
The ads for "No Strings Attached" ask us to ponder whether friends can have sex and still remain just friends. The answer is never really in doubt, but "No Strings Attached" forces to slog through all the usual misunderstandings, missed opportunities and potential extracurricular mates before we get there.
"No Strings Attached," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material. Running time: 102 minutes.