Natalie Portman's paycheck role in No Strings Attached

After a breakthrough, Natalie Portman takes a paycheck role in No Strings Attached.
Paramount Pictures DOCTOR KNOW Portman, left, with Greta Gerwig, is too smart for No Strings Attached.
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At a glance, Natalie Portman seems to possess everything Hollywood looks for in a romantic lead: cherubic good looks, a megawatt smile, girl-next-door sex appeal. (Not for nothing has she been compared to Audrey Hepburn.) Though she just won an Oscar for violently divorcing herself from those qualities in Darren Aronofsky’s bombastic Black Swan, Portman has shrewdly stayed in the business of stealing hearts. In 2011 so far, she’s been onscreen as a lot of love interests—trading bawdy barbs with Danny McBride in last month’s Your Highness, locking lips with the Norse God of Thunder in this week’s Thor and playing a bookish object of preteen desire in next week’s Hesher. And unless you count Garden State, this year she also starred in the first bona fide romantic comedy of her career: No Strings Attached, opposite Ashton Kutcher. The movie comes to DVD, Blu-ray and VOD Tuesday 10.

With her looks and charisma, Portman could have headlined a dozen date movies in as many years. But while she may be perpetually falling in and out of love in movies, she’s rarely doing it in factory-made drivel. All of which makes her appearance in a formulaic romcom like No Strings Attached perplexing. It’s hard to understand why she’d attach herself to a project like this, and watching the film makes it clear why she took so long to do so.

The movie takes us back to When Harry Met Sally territory, as we wait for perfectly matched lovers to wise up to their complete compatibility. Like Harry and Sally, Kutcher’s Adam and Portman’s Emma bump into each other every half-decade or so before forming a close friendship. Very close: The two are instant fuck buddies, hopping into bed on a whim, then settling into a regular sex-without-commitment arrangement. Can they keep living the dream or is someone bound to catch feelings?

It’s a very tired debate, one that, as most critics were quick to remind us, Seinfeld settled almost two decades ago. For our leading lady, the project’s appeal—beyond a generous paycheck, one assumes—may have lain in gentle gender-role subversion. It’s Kutcher’s character, not Portman’s, who wants to get serious. (In one of the film’s funnier moments, he brings her a balloon after their first hookup.) Of course, Emma’s aversion to relationships is revealed to be an emotional handicap. Her inevitable full-on embrace of monogamy isn’t just fast and easy—it’s an affirmation of mainstream values. Kutcher has tamed the wild hottie and made her into wife material.

Portman’s not exactly charming here. In fact, she seems vaguely uncomfortable throughout, sometimes almost resentful. Part of that is the role—a chronic commitment-phobe, Emma keeps everyone at a certain distrustful distance. The rest is just Natalie; her climactic change of heart is woefully unconvincing. There’s a sense not just that the material is beneath her, but that she knows it’s beneath her. You can see the gears turning behind her eyes. You can see her mentally outpacing this stock character.

Hollywood looks at Portman and sees a bombshell, but she’s a much rarer asset than that. Beneath the movie-star charm there’s a nervous energy, a hint of brainy and prickly neurosis. At best, that idiosyncratic edge punctures the smooth surface of otherwise uninteresting roles. At worst, as in No Strings Attached, it manifests itself as a kind of bored impatience. So thank heavens for Black Swan: Shrill and obvious though it may be, it’s the rare film that puts all of Portman’s tics, quirks and nagging insecurities up front. That magic smile can make knees go weak, but it’s the world of weirdness lurking behind it that’s really worth swooning over.

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