Forget Black Swan – Natalie Portman’s real crowning performance is to be found in the romantic comedy No Strings Attached in which director Ivan Reitman asks her to convey sincere unqualified affection for Ashton Kutcher. Portman much to her credit gamely complies and though she may not have the emaciated figure bloody nails and bandaged ankles to tell of her labors the psychic scars must no doubt be just as severe.
Exhibiting strong chick-flick leanings and a rambunctious soft-R comic tone (i.e. lots of F-bombs some menstrual humor and a few shots of Kutcher’s naked ass) No Strings Attached is built around a basic relationship role-reversal: The dude Adam (Kutcher) longs for a deeper lasting commitment; the chick Emma (Portman) insists on keeping matters purely physical. Emma’s motive is a practical one: As a doctor-to-be her busy residency schedule with its 80-hour work weeks and intensive exam preparations precludes a serious relationship. But alas a woman has certain needs (foreplay apparently not being among them) and who better to fulfill them than Kutcher’s non-threatening boy-toy?
Thus a “friends with benefits” arrangement is cemented whereupon the ripcord is to be pulled on the occasion that either of them develops stronger feelings. This does not last long for soon Adam is cloyingly lobbying for escalation. Emma demurs – not out of disinterest we are told but because she’s intimacy-averse and afraid of a broken heart. Why else would she resist a more permanent attachment to someone like Adam?
Perhaps it’s because Adam as played by Kutcher is about as interesting as cabbage. And yet No Strings Attached would have us believe he’s some kind of floppy-haired Albert Schweitzer. This despite the fact that his greatest aspiration in life is to join the writing staff of a High School Musical-esque television series the shallow inanity of which is one of the film’s recurring jokes. In vain support of his cause the filmmakers decorate Adam’s apartment with various props – vintage posters books about 1920s movies a guitar that is occasionally picked up but never actually played – that hint at a depth that Kutcher himself never manifests.
Still Portman sells us on Adam and Emma’s inevitable union with every ounce of her not inconsiderable talent. (And her comic chops are legit – as those who’ve glimpsed her appearances on SNL and Funny or Die can attest.) But she asks too much. And Elizabeth Meriweather’s script while witty and stocked with some keen observations on the evolving nature of relationships in the modern age becomes weighed down by sentiment unbecoming an R-rated comedy not directed by Judd Apatow. In the end Kutcher seals the increasingly contrived deal with the climactic line “I’m warning you: Come one step closer and I’m never letting you go ” (I’m paraphrasing but not loosely) by which time the film's already lost its grip.
The Wackness winner of Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award compares favorably with some of the best teen angst movies of the past. It could have been just another stoner slack-fest but instead finds much to say and should resonate with not only those who also came of age in the ‘90s but anyone who ever crossed that frightening threshold. Set in the summer of 1994 when N.A.S Notorious B.I.G. and Outkast ruled the airwaves Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his last summer peddling marijuana out of an ice cart and trading it for free therapy sessions with his aging pot-smoking psychiatrist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) who seems to be trying desperately to hang onto his own youth. Although the advice (“you need to get laid”) he hands out probably wouldn’t pass muster in most medical circles the two strike up an unusual relationship. Luke takes his first tentative steps into manhood courtesy of his shrink’s stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) while Squires must deal with a fading marriage to his much-younger wife (Famke Janssen). Peck--best known for Nickelodeon’s bubblegum sitcom Drake and Josh--exhibits great promise with his low-key simple performance as a messed-up pot-dealing teenager on the verge of adulthood. He could have played this as a straight stoner but instead is remarkably three dimensional offering a portrait of a young man in transition. He’s a guy whose problems with his parents friends and girls are just the tip of the iceberg in his own coming-of-age drama. As the other half of this very odd couple Kingsley seems to be relishing his role as an aging hippie therapist whose lifelong obsession with pot has clearly rattled his brain. Squires own confusion leads him to a hilarious “romantic” encounter with a dreadlocked little tramp played amusingly by Mary-Kate Olsen who is probably STILL talking about her make-out scene with the Oscar-winning actor. Also along for Luke’s quirky ride into manhood is Thirlby who showed great promise in Juno and confirms it here as a very confident young woman who deflowers the awkward Luke in a wonderfully understated bedroom scene. Janssen has little to do but look lovely while Talia Balsam and David Wohl are in for some brief moments as Luke’s difficult parents. And look for nice bits from Jane Adams as a new wave keyboard player Disturbia’s Aaron Yoo and Method Man as Luke’s supplier. It’s probably no coincidence young writer/director Jonathan Levine graduated from high school in 1994--the same year he has set for The Wackness. Clearly he knows the era and particularly the music which plays such a key role in setting the mood of this picture. Levine has passion for the hip hop sounds of the era and has effortlessly incorporated them directly into his storyline. Where The Wackness really departs from your average slacker epic however is in its seriousness of tone. At its core the film is not unlike classic teen movies such as Risky Business and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Levine creates flawed almost tragic figures we can identify with in one way or another. That’s what holds this somewhat meandering tale together so well. We come to like these characters and wish them well as their lives are hovering at a crossroads. Levine’s filmmaking style is slightly awkward and the movie is unattractively lit but with The Wackness Levine captures a moment in time with great skill and heart.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) a bleeding heart poet and staunch environmentalist is convinced a series of unexplained coincidences involving a tall African doorman somehow mean something leading him to married metaphysicians Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin)--otherwise known as the Existential Detectives. Instead of looking for other people this pair tirelessly investigates the mysteries of their clients' secret innermost lives--their "Beings " so to speak--to help them answer their questions. Immediately digging in Bernard and Vivian find out that Albert has a deep-seated hatred for Brad Stand (Jude Law) a golden-boy sales executive at the popular retail superstore chain Huckabees who at first sponsors Albert's Open Spaces Coalition to save a nearby marsh from commercial construction but who ends up taking over the coalition. The Existential Detectives believe Brad may be the key to cracking Albert's case but get sidetracked when Brad hires them for himself--leading them to explore Brad's ambitions hang-ups and his superficial relationship with Huckabees' hot blonde spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile Albert becomes disenfranchised with Bernard and Vivian and pairs up with another of the duo's clients--firefighter tough guy and uncompromising soul searcher Tommy (Mark Wahlberg). Together they join forces with the Jaffes' arch nemesis sexy French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) whose life teachings revolve around "cruelty manipulation and meaninglessness." Now as Being intermixes with Nothingness Albert Tommy Brad Dawn Bernard Vivian and Caterine get all tangled up in one another as their wild romp through life's biggest questions brings them to some startling truths. Whew!
With such a clever script to back them up it isn't hard to see why the Huckabees wannabes turn in some cracking good performances. Schwartzman once again plays a nebbish sullen but lovable geek (similar to his side-splitting turn in Rushmore) bringing out the film's heart and soul especially with his environmental poetry ("You ROCK rock!"). Veterans Hoffman and Tomlin who are dead-on as the happily married Existential Detectives and Huppert as the deadpan French philosopher complement the proceedings beautifully. For the first time in a long time Hoffman doesn't overplay his part instead letting his quiet inner "Being" out taking his character's philosophies to heart ("Everything you ever desired or wanted to be you already have and are"). But who knew more serious actors--Mark Wahlberg Jude Law and Naomi Watts--could be so excruciatingly funny? Wahlberg's freethinking obstinate firefighter would rather ride a bike to a fire than get into a gas-guzzling fire truck while Watts' Dawn decides she doesn't need to be pretty and is fearless with overalls a bonnet and Oreo cookies stuck in her teeth. As the straight man Law actually has the most difficult part playing the handsome cad who thinks he doesn't believe in all that existential bullcrap but ever so slightly gets slammed with the reality of it anyway.
Writer/director David O. Russell is one fascinating guy. With a body of work including the really weird and wild Spanking the Monkey the hilarious slapsticky Flirting With Disaster and the intense Three Kings it's obvious he is capable of handling a wide variety of subjects. With Huckabees Russell gets into some serious deep thinking. He says he became "intrigued with the idea of a detective following someone around not for any criminal or personal intrigue but rather as part of a very serious investigation about existence itself " drawing concepts from several different strains of existentialism--from the non-dual interconnectedness theories of Eastern philosophy (Bernard and Vivian's take) to the Sartrean notions of a more meaningless universe that demands a profound individualism (Caterine's point of view). Huh? Don't worry your pretty little heads about it too much. Russell's bone-crushing sense of humor comes shining through--as does his unique vision as the camera is used in new and different ways (especially creative when Albert is trying to find his "Being")--to piece together a wondrous coherent albeit thought-provoking little gem. Oscar gold awaits.
David Arquette is happy-go-lucky Gordon Smith a dog-fearing postman in the Jersey 'burbs who likes to hang with his buddy Benny (Anthony Anderson) watching sports and eating Cheetos and enjoying a life free of responsibility. Until that is the hot neighbor Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) he's been trying unsuccessfully to date is left without a babysitter and leaves her young son James (Angus T. Jones) in his care. Meanwhile mobster baddie Sonny Talia (Paul Sorvino) puts a hit out on the hardworking FBI canine Agent Eleven who helped bust up his drug deal. Eleven escapes protective custody and ends up hitching a ride in - you guessed it -- Gordon's mail delivery truck. Now Sonny's hit men (and the FBI) are after all three of them.
Arquette who's best known for his AT&T spots "Scream" movie roles and marriage to "Friend" Courteney Cox is good at pulling off the physical comedy required to portray a kid in a grown man's body with his wild hair wacky attitude fart jokes and breakdancing abilities. While most kiddie flicks feature annoyingly precocious tots you'd rather strangle than watch on-screen the pudgy terrifyingly cute Jones comes across just like any regular kid. You wouldn't guess that perfect-looking Leslie Bibb ("Popular") could be so appealing but she's willing to get dirty -- literally - and is able to pull off slapstick schtick with the best of 'em. Michael Clarke Duncan as Agent Eleven's way-too-devoted human partner Murdoch is over-the-top silly but gets plenty of laughs. The dog's cute too.
Director John Whitesell whose only other film credit is 1993's "Calendar Girl " does a good job of hanging this not-so-original tale around a likeable energetic cast that really looks like they're having fun. Thankfully the movie doesn't go overboard with sentimentality -- "Spot" hits the right emotional spot tempering the tear-jerking stuff with juvenile comedy and throwing in some jokes that'll make adults laugh too. Young and old will enjoy this movie although it might be overlong and too confusing for some very little ones to follow and some of the humor gets pretty gross - watching the hapless Arquette roll around in doggy doo for 10 minutes was a bit much.