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.
In the summer of 1990 after graduating from Emory University with grades good enough to get into Harvard Law upper-middle-class 22-year-old Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) gave his $24 000 life savings to Oxfam and hit the open road. Christening himself Alexander Supertramp the idealistic McCandless proceeded to wander the country's highways and byways for two years before striking out alone into the wilds of Alaska. Anyone who's read the Jon Krakauer book knows what happened then but those who are new to McCandless' story will be holding their breath as his journey progresses toward its sadly inevitable end. The beauty of director Sean Penn's film is the route it takes to get there introducing viewers to the people Chris touched during his travels and making it clear what he learned about love and forgiveness along the way. The success of a movie like Into the Wild depends disproportionately on the talents of its star. Luckily Hirsch doesn't disappoint. Simultaneously charismatic and aloof he makes Chris both an enigma and an Everyman. Whether he's exulting in a panoramic view of the Alaskan wilderness shooting roiling river rapids (impressively no stunt doubles were used) or learning how to operate a combine machine Chris/Alex is completely aware--and appreciative--of every new experience life brings him. His quest for truth and authenticity affects everyone he meets from hippie couple Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) to fast-talking entrepreneur Wayne (Vince Vaughn) and lonely leather worker Ron Frazer (Hal Holbrook). Meanwhile representing Chris' abandoned conflict-ridden homefront Jena Malone provides heartfelt nuanced voice-over narration as Chris' sister Carine. Filming Into the Wild was a labor of love for Penn and his affection for the material shows in every frame. Like Chris Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier rhapsodize over sweeping vistas and pristine countryside lingering on the way sunlight glints on water droplets and the beauty of a freshly harvested field. Penn is in no hurry to tell Chris' tale; he lets it unfold naturally its rhythm matching the ebbs and flows of Chris' journey. Aiding him every step of the way is the film's powerful soundtrack which features original music by Eddie Vedder. Whether building momentum or accompanying Chris in moments of quiet contemplation the film's music is the traveling companion Chris doesn't realize he needs until it's too late. Blending sympathy for Chris' motives with regret for his tragic end; Into the Wild is a thoughtful biopic that's both inspiring and chastening.