“She looks like my child,” Ashton Kutcher said jokingly of his “No Strings Attached” co-star, Natalie Portman. It’s true, the former underwear model towers over the “Garden State” star’s 5-foot-3 stature, a disjunctive exterior that has caused some to consider them an unlikely matchup as onscreen sexual partners. However, “No Strings Attached,” a long-ongoing project by director Ivan Reitman (“I Love You, Man”) and up-and-coming screenwriter Liz Meriwether, is all about breaking these types of boundaries.
“When we started working on the set a good three years ago, it seemed to be like a zeitgeist,” Reitman said of the conscious strides the filmmakers took to represent the current sex paradigm with integrity. “Certainly this is not my generation; I’m from the big baby boom generation that thought we started free love, starting with the summer of love…I thought it was very important for me to keep my mind and my ears open.”
What this zeitgeist comes down to in the film is the attitudes and esteem in which both parties hold toward one another in a sexual relationship. Kutcher, though known to play somewhat sleazy characters (? la That 70s Show’s Michael Kelso), founded the Demi and Ashton Foundation (DNA) together with his spouse, actress Demi Moore. The foundation’s website explains that basic human rights and freedoms are at the heart of DNA, and through donations and providing advocates for victims they hope to “raise awareness about child sex slavery, change the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem and rehabilitate innocent victims.”
The warped definitions of sexuality that are created through human trafficking are more extreme than anything covered in the movie (it is essentially a romantic comedy, after all) but Kutcher explains that this issue, which is so deeply ingrained with him, still resounds with themes fundamental to “No Strings Attached” such as sexual self-identity, especially within young females who are likely to be the film’s primary audience.
“There is so much that is not said about sex in our country, even from an education level. I do a lot of work on human trafficking and I connect a lot with girls that end up in this ‘trade’ if you will, partially because of a lack of education about sex in their country,” he said. “I think that sometimes we get to make films that sort of open things up, things that people can talk about… To create a movie with a female lead that is empowered with her own sexuality, I think is a really powerful thing. And I think if we could give teenage people something to think about from a sex perspective, I would say it would be to open up a conversation where women are empowered with their own sexual experiences from an educational level as well as an entertainment one.”
“No Strings Attached” ultimately centers around a young doctor who is fearful and unwilling to place an emotional stake in her sexual encounters – yet she is far from a figure of weakness. Femininity is embodied in an entirely new regime by Portman’s character, Emma, in that she takes control of the physical desires in her life singlehandedly. Mutual attraction, respect and even love are ultimately achieved by Emma and Adam (Kutcher) – and, as Portman (who is currently “cooking a child”) pointed out in this interview, both actors are involved in committed relationships themselves. But the initial premise of the film – making “friends with benefits” succeed – can be seen as equally important thematically, simply because of the social inequities it defies.
“One of the things that I find really interesting is that, especially for women in the sex education system in schools, the one thing that they teach about is how to get pregnant or how to not get pregnant but they don’t really talk about sex as a point of pleasure for women,” Kutcher said. “The male orgasm is right there and readily available to learn about especially because it is actually part of the reproductive cycle. The female orgasm is not really talked about in the education system, and therefore part of that as a spin-off creates a place where women aren’t empowered around their own sexuality, and around their own sexual selves.”
SURVIVING THE TEXTING AGE – For a movie that is supposedly all about having a “no strings attached” relationship, Meriwether’s humorous romance weaves a tangled web of pressure and emotions. Leading man Kutcher, an icon of Twitter and other technological outlets, recently wrote an article for Harper’s Bazaar about the implications and effects that come with a society so dependent upon technology to communicate romantically – and the crutch that these man made tools supply to people’s fear of face-to-face interaction. Reitman spoke from a directorial perspective of how he envisioned this reality unfolding in his film.
“So much of relationships today take place when the people are not in the same room. Whether it’s texting or e-mailing or Facebooking there is a kind of distance between the participants; I think it has kind of shifted the energy of the first romantic meeting – where it’s quicker, perhaps more desperate, more energetic in a whole different way,” he said. “It’s resulted in a situation where people seem to be sometimes more comfortable having a sexual relationship than an emotional one. It seems to be the way things have generated now and I think that it’s certainly a fitting subject matter for a film.”
Meriwether is still in her 20s, so her point of view was more in the moment and attuned to what relationships are and what she thinks they should be right now. In viewing the film, 20-somethings in the audience should be pleasantly surprised with the graceful and truly comedic way their lives and opinions are reflected in Emma and Adam as well as her on-point minor characters (setting a competitive standard of quality for a genre which has become more and more defined by overused plotlines, sickeningly sweet characters and tired, lifeless comedy).
“I think it’s the way that relationships come together these days. I think in a lot of romantic comedies it ends with a kiss, but in modern day relationships – maybe it’s just my own experience – it starts with a kiss, then it all falls apart, it comes together, you’re texting, you’re wondering what’s going on, there’s no definitions there’s no labels. So I think that’s really what’s going on right now; I think a lot of romantic comedies need to catch up with what’s really happening.”
SEX IN THE MOVIE (AND WHY IT’S GREAT) – One of the first instances where audiences may be taken aback in “No Strings Attached” is not when a young Adam at Camp Weehawken asks the preteen Emma, “Can I finger you”? (to no avail). Rather, even more shocking and thought-provoking is when, in the first real sex scene between the two characters, they pause amid the frenzied hotness (seriously, really hot) to grab a condom. Reitman and the actors discussed the decisions made in that particular scene, a turning point in the plot of “No Strings Attached.”
“Obviously [sex] is really prevalent in our country, and I think that’s part of what the movie addresses. You know we have so much sex in our media that’s dissociating from emotions; we have so much separation between feeling and the emotional and physical sides of sex, and they really do belong together,” Portman said. “Condoms were fake-used in the fake sex scenes in this movie”
“But you should still use real ones,” Meriwether interjected.
The ironic thing about promoting safe sex for young people through a film – teens who may have never been formally educated otherwise – is that “No Strings Attached” has an R rating; thus, no person younger than 17 will be going to theaters unaccompanied by a parent to see it.
“We made an honest movie, and unfortunately if you make an honest movie today it’s rated R; it really is,” Kutcher said.
Furthermore, Reitman expressed the frustration of how the use of curse words, from which the mature rating primarily came, are oftentimes used more prevalently by young people anyway. He stands firmly behind the significant and superior-quality ideas upon which the film was constructed.
“[The R rating was given] particularly for language and ideas, not so much for how much nudity and even sex there is in a film. I think audiences aren’t even particularly interested in that; I think if people are really interested in seeing pure sex they have the Internet and other extraordinary things that are available,” he said. “It’s meant to be an honest comedy about sexuality.”
Sarah Witman is a sophomore majoring in journalism, and has a newfound appreciation for intelligent and mature romantic comedies. Any partiality shown toward the film in this article was influenced by Paramount’s payment for flights to and from Los Angeles, CA, one night at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, and a dazzling assortment of Spicy Tuna Rolls. Statements made by the actors and filmmakers occurred during a press junket made possible by Paramount Pictures. “No Strings Attached” will hit Madison theaters Jan. 21.