During the actual 110 minute runtime of this movie, surrounded by laughing and appreciative audience members, I was able to enjoy and buy into the tale spun by screenwriter Elizabeth Merriwether from her story with Mike Samonek. In the emotionally harrowing world of post-college (Ok, post-30, post-40) singlehood, the fantasy of two lovely people having hot but angst-free sex seems not only convenient, but appealing. Why compromise your morning routine or negotiate where you spend Christmas when hot acrobatics are just a text away? Naturally, our sexy protagonists Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) cannot help but fall in love — it is a movie, after all – their intimacy, free of relationship, guarantees a sort of jovial acceptance of each other. Of course they are both real catches. She’s a doctor with a lifelong fear of any kind of emotional vulnerability, and he’s a Hollywood assistant shying away from his father’s fame. Said father is played delectably by Kevin Kline!
It’s a delicious dream to have your sexy cake and eat it to, but a dream that simply cannot survive in Hollywood and Puritan-based America. We can’t have a beautiful woman like Portman refuse to be in a relationship! At the same time, we can no longer accept a hot guy would only want sex; what an unfair stereotype! Naturally his heart melts first. Paralleling the backwards courtship of Adam and Emma are their respective best friends, Eli (Jake M. Johnson) and Patrice (Greta Gerwig). Eli and Patrice meet through the leads and slowly grow into a “regular” couple through the traditional channels. At no point is their progress touted or presented as the preferable way, but it does remind those of us watching that all Adam and Emma are doing is pretending to not be emotionally vulnerable and living out our fantasies without suffering any of the consequences.
But here’s the thing. Thanks to oxytocin (the bonding hormone exuded after sex) and cultural norms and all sorts of narrative expectations and cultural whatsit, this is a dangerous fantasy to propagate in film. We can’t endorse dogs and cats humping together! We can’t tell everyone that hookups lead to love either! Sure, people enter into friends with benefits-type setups all the time. Do they end amicably? Sometimes. Does one person get attached when the other one doesn’t? Often. Do they find their perfect mate and retain the passion of illicit, trouble-free coitus after revealing who they really are inside (typically the kind of person who aggressively is terrified of revealing who they really are)? Not so much. Romantic comedies used to ply us with the dream that someone somewhere will see the person we really are as the catch she really is and then move heaven and earth to win her. Now all it seems she has to do is remain emotionally aloof. Most guys would really be like, “sweet, I don’t even have to remember her birthday!” It’s the perfect male fantasy in stereotypical female fantasy drag. Consequence-free and extra-forgiving sex for him and real love despite your socially crippling psychological issues for her: good news everyone! Emotional unavailability is curable with copious applications of making no demands of another person. Good luck out there, guys and gals who have a dream.
This may sound a little harsh. I did really enjoy watching Portman and Kutcher negotiate their arrangement, Johnson and Gerwig were fun, Kline of course is divine, and the whole supporting cast was lots of fun. Lake Bell plays an uncomfortably familiar coworker of Kutcher’s and brought some great laughs. The music and dialogue are both great — Merriwether has a gift for dialogue that I wish had been granted the vaguely similarly themed How Do You Know. Kutcher and Portman have great friend chemistry, great sexy moments, and are easy on the eyes. The characters are all very enjoyable, and again, the fantasy is a powerful one. My lower grade comes from walking maybe 20 feet out of the theatre and being overwhelmed by the depressing realization that this may be the best dream that Hollywood can offer me. Is the secret to emotional happiness the exact opposite of everything evidenced by humanity in real life? Is the point really just that love is just as capricious and elusive as ever? I applaud everyone’s performance in the movie, but I reserve my praise for worthier dreams.
MPAA Rating R-sexual content, language, some drug use
Release date 1/21/11
Time in minutes 110
Director Ivan Reitman
Studio Paramount Pictures