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No Strings Attached (2011) -vs- What Happens in Vegas (2008)

Kutcher to the Max

Art Tiersky - Contributing WriterThe Smackdown

Ashton Kutcher has led a charmed life. Since breaking out as a sitcom star with That ‘70s Show in 1998, he married Hot Babe Brat-Packer-Turned-Actress-Turned-Celebrity Demi Moore and produced and hosted a veritable buttload of mindless but lucrative reality shows. Now, the undisputed Twitter king and anti-child-pornography crusader, he’s been recruited to fill the puke-stained shoes of Charlie Sheen on sitcom cash cow Two and a Half Men, leaving America relieved that Sheen did not, despite concerns, do enough cocaine to kill two and a half men, but at the same time alarmed by the potential disruption this will cause to Ashton’s film career.

Yes, Kutcher has also starred in several movies, the lion’s share of which were broad comedies largely ignored by America, fortunately for Kutcher (and America). Earlier this year, however, it seemed like he was dipping his toes into the water of more mature projects such as No Strings Attached, a fairly realistic comedy/drama/romance, which featured no less than two Oscar winners as well as that Indian chick from The Office (Mindy Kaling).

With Kutcher set to (temporarily at least) abandon filmdom for TMZ’s favorite sitcom, it’s time to evaluate his still-young career once and for all: Is Kutcher a major movie talent whose agents are having trouble finding him the right projects, or did his film career peak early with Dude, Where’s My Car, essentially a rehashing, so to speak, of his success on That ‘70s Show, thus making his U-turn back to sitcom-land a wise career move?

Clearly, only a Smackdown can settle this. Finding a formidable challenger to No Strings from the comedies that comprise the Kutcher filmography was no easy task, but his biggest hit, 2008’s What Happens in Vegas, was the natural choice. Both give the two leads best pals to trade wisecracks with and explain the story to. In both, Ashton has an odd, strained relationship with his father: In No Strings, it’s Kevin Kline as an eccentric former TV star and aging lothario/pothead, and in Vegas, it’s Treat Williams, who looked more comfortable in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead waxing poetic about eating feces. Both feature the endearing Lake Bell, as the acid-tongued best friend in Vegas and as a quirky, jittery co-worker of Ashton’s in No Strings.

The Challenger

[singlepic id=1069 w=320 h=240 float=right]The first of approximately 700 friends-with-benefits rom-coms coming out this year, No Strings Attached pairs Kutcher with the ubiquitous and ever-adorable Natalie Portman. He’s a production assistant and aspiring writer. (Ashton Kutcher as a writer. A really good writer. Yes, really.) She’s a doctor. (Oh, what the hell, why not?) They’ve been off-and-on pals since their summer camp days, when (in the poignant opening scene) he politely asked if he could finger her, and she even more politely declined. But now that they’re grown-ups, and she’s too busy and career-minded for a real relationship, it’s on!  With no str…Yeah, you get the idea.

Directed by one-time A-Lister Ivan Reitman, now better known as “Jason’s dad” from a script by Elizabeth Meriwether with story help from Michael Samonek, No Strings attracted an overwhelmingly female audience (surprise!), which liked it more than the critics.

The Defending Champion

[singlepic id=1068 w=320 h=240 float=right]Lifelong goof-off Jack (Kutcher) has just been fired from his carpenter job, by his father, no less.  Uptight Joy (Cameron Diaz) has just been dumped by her fiancé. Off they go with their respective wisecracking best pals to drown their sorrows in the decadence of Las Vegas, where they all meet up by getting double-booked in the same hotel suite, which leads to a big crazy brawl. For some reason.

But after this rocky start, our two leads drunkenly fall for each other and wake up in the morning, hung over, hitched, and hating each other. For some reason. And then in the morning, they inadvertently win three million dollars at a quarter slot machine (just go with it), and when they try to settle in court who gets the loot, a judge (funnyman-turned-unfunnyman Dennis Miller) orders them to stay together for six months to try to make the marriage work. For some reason.

So they devote the rest of the movie to being as intolerable as possible to each other, hoping the other will surrender and give up their half of the money. Yes, really, that’s the plot.

The Scorecard

Both these films beg the question with regards to Ashton, “What the hell does she see in this guy?” Obviously, what he brings to the table is that he looks like Ashton Kutcher. But in No Strings, his character is a bland, inexpressive dullard, and in Vegas, an obnoxious, aimless cad. In the former, we are not remotely rooting for him to get the girl, and in the latter, we actually are, but only because she’s awful. The horribly miscast Diaz mugs and scolds to such a grating degree that the performance earned her a Razzie nomination. So he can have her.

No Strings is harmless enough; in fact, it’s so harmless, it nearly evaporates. Its depiction of the friends-with-benefits relationship at its core consists mostly of a single music montage of Ashton and Natalie lustily disrobing as they head into a series of trysts. After that, he wants a relationship, she says no (for some reason) but then gets crazy jealous when he moves on. Their best friends dispense advice and quips and eventually fall for each other (imagine When Harry Met Sally…” remade younger and lobotomized). It’s an odd mix of tones, running from surprising crassness to broad silliness to fairly believable light comedy (mostly from the charming Bell, the best thing in the movie) to overly earnest drama. It’s watchable enough, but for a movie about relationships meant for purely superficial joy, it’s surprisingly little fun. But Ashton, required merely to be a Handsome Nice (if rather bland) Guy, comes away fairly unscathed.

Vegas, on the other hand, features two characters who do not belong together and in fact hate each other even more than we hate them (which is really saying something), and then tries to convince us that they belong together, mainly by having various characters (Treat Williams and Queen Latifah, in a small, thankless role as a marriage counselor) tell them how perfect they are for each other. Their sole shared trait is loathsomeness. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine any actors making this material (written by Dana Fox, who also helped pen the equally excruciating Couples Retreat) work; it’s an astonishingly stupid and contrived premise that’s basically an excuse to create an Odd Couple-type situation, leading to supposed hilarity like Kutcher urinating in the kitchen sink and Diaz trying to knock him off his skateboard by throwing fruit at him. But these actors, aside from lacking the chops for this type of comedy, aren’t even well cast; Ashton is too goofily likable to be convincingly nasty, and Diaz is too sweet and fun-loving to play such an uptight bitch.

The Decision

It’s not much of a contest. No Strings Attached doesn’t aim any higher than being forgettable fluff, and it achieves its ambition. No particularly bad scenes, even the occasional good one, and it’s got a large cast of likable actors in supporting roles. Kutcher’s character is a dull mannequin, which is to say that it’s right in his comfort zone. What Happens in Vegas, on the other hand, is actually trying for the big laughs, and its failure to get them in scene after scene is painful. It’s essentially an overlong sitcom pilot that no one would ever want to watch. I would not be eager to  view either of these again, but if someone put a gun to my head and forced me, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose No Strings Attached.  And deprived of that choice, I’d take the bullet.

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6 Comments on No Strings Attached (2011) -vs- What Happens in Vegas (2008)

  1. Arthur — this is a terrific Smackdown! In fact, the Smack attack on both films had me laughing longer and harder than anything in either of these movies. Good writing, in fact, damn good writing, is something I love — and I love your style. Please keep ’em coming.

    • Thanks, Robert! I’ll do my damndest.

  2. Great choice Arthur – I hated What Happens In Vegas but actually enjoyed No Strings… even though I was watching it because it’s the one the wife chose to rent that weekend. I’m not a huge Kutcher fan, myself, although I think Natalie Portman elevated Strings above the potential waste of time it COULD have been….

    • Thanks, Rodney. I dunno about Natalie in this movie, I don’t think her presence really added much to it. She’s too much of a sweetie-pie to be so steadfast about only wanting sex with Ashton and not seeing his boyfriend potential. If anything, she belongs in the type of role where she just wants to be friends and NO physical contact.

      I’m not sure what to make of “Friends with Benefits” yet, but give me Mila Kunis for a part like this any day. Hoo-ah!

  3. Jackie and I rented and watched No Strings Attached last night and, at first, I was pretty wary but, honestly, as it went on I started to get into it enough. It’s slow, and the concept that they wouldn’t just throw in together, may be a little strained but, hey… I bought it.

    Who I really, really liked was Lake Bell. There was just a quality about her performance that made me believe it.

    And, on the subject of Ashton Kutcher, I thought he was about as engaging as he’s been in other projects I’ve seen him in. Maybe a little bland here, as you say, but still somebody I’d want as a friend who I could count on to have my back.

    I’m just sayin’…

    • We agree about Lake Bell. I hope she gets more work out of this. I was actually rooting for him to wind up with her and not Natalie. Except she was so interesting and quirky, and he was so bland and boring, I didn’t want him to get her either.

      Fine. I was rooting for ME to wind up with her.

      Happy now?

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