No Strings Attached: The Thawing of Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman has made a career out of playing composed, high-achieving heroines. Unwinding enough to pull off this relaxed, raunchy romantic comedy may be her toughest challenge yet

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Dale Robinette / Paramount Pictures

On Feb. 27, Oscar night, Natalie Portman will likely be proclaimed the year’s best actress for her performance as the obsessive ballerina in Black Swan. One reason for this expected accolade is that she plays against type — the Natalie Portman type — by boldly renouncing the ladylike propriety that has marked many of her roles and that she wears like a princess’s tiara in her private-public life. Nice girl plays naughty girl; brava! Another reason is that, as everyone who’s read about the film knows, director Darren Aronofsky insisted she practice for six arduous months to become a plausible dancer. The Motion Picture Academy likes to know you worked like a demon to nail the role. That’s a prime requisite of these awards: actors get them when they make their job look hard.

But there’s Acting, in serioso psycho-thrillers like Black Swan, and then there’s slipping into the lead role in a romantic comedy like Portman’s new film, No Strings Attached. It’s the difference between pretending to be someone else and pretending to be yourself. That used to be called star acting, and in this movie the master of that underappreciated craft is Ashton Kutcher. A former Calvin Klein model and That 70s Show ingénue, Kutcher knows that the key to rom-com is relaxation: the old movie magic of an easy warmth kindled by two stars. You don’t put yourself through boot camp; instead, you take it easy, or seem to, and trust in your radiance. It’s a game of seduction, with your co-star and the audience as the seducees. Kutcher makes his job look like no job at all. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is acting.

(VIDEO: Watch TIME’s 10 Questions for Natalie Portman.)

Written by 20-something Elizabeth Meriwether and directed by 64-year-old Ivan Reitman (Jason’s father), No Strings Attached has a cross-generational vibe: it’s a Rock Hudson-Doris Day movie with penis jokes. Adam (Kutcher) is an assistant on a Glee-ish TV show; he’s known Nina (Portman) off and on for half their lives. A young med student, Nina is too serious for a serious relationship. So she offers a deal to Adam: that they “use each other for sex, at all hours of the day or night, and nothing else.” No dates; no nicknames for body parts; and the one forbidden four-letter word is love.

Adam is game, and who wouldn’t be? She’s Natalie Portman. But soon he’s behaving the way a courtly boyfriend would: making her a mix tape of classic pop songs (when she has her period) and slipping into the spooning position as they sleep after sex. Dammit, he’s falling in love with her — because she’s Natalie Portman. He takes her on a real date, one so faux-innocent (miniature golf, a museum visit, a soda-shoppe interlude to consume a milkshake with two straws) that the mood is pre-Rock and Doris; it’s Andy Hardy and Polly Benedict in MGM’s wholesome, sentimental renditions of the American teen dream.

(See pictures of Natalie Portman’s career.)

Aiming to be a smart comedy that stupid folks can enjoy too, the movie sometimes footnotes its own gags — as when a friend tells Adam, “The thing about having sex in a Prius is that you don’t have to feel guilty afterward,” and Kutcher immediately explains joke to the eco-ignorant members of the audience: “Because of the low carbon footprint.” The picture is no great shakes as cinema, and a shade too cute for its own good.

Still, it’s a mild shock to see a competent film released in the January trough. Better than that, No Strings is a relative rarity: an R-rated rom-com where the two stars exchange the sweet or prickly intimacies that real people talk about before, during and after sex. And not guy-guy — as in the standard bromance, smirking with the towel snap of locker-room wisdom — but guy-gal, in all appropriate gender shadings. Credit that to a woman screenwriter’s variation on the Judd Apatow ethic; and take note, Hollywood, that a few raunchy endearments can give a rom-com gender equality.

This is a genre well outside Portman’s comfort zone, which is normally embodying tense, highly wired characters. In her lifetime before the camera (starting when she was 12 as a waif adopted by a gunman in Luc Besson’s The Professional), she has mostly played fraught heroines, whether in big-budget action films or soulful domestic dramas. Here, she seems uncomfortable at first, an exchange student at a frat party. Remember how Marilyn Monroe spoke English — almost as a second language that she had crammed to learn? That’s how Portman approaches her first Hollywood comedy. The Harvard girl has a tough new course, and it takes her about half of the film to get it right.

Give Portman her due. Along the way she takes pointers in behavioral acting from the rest of the cast (including Kevin Kline, Olivia Thirlby and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and wills herself into relaxation mode. By the end, when Nina finally falls in love with Adam, the donut powder on her nose doesn’t seem like an indignity, a hazing of the Euro-star, but the most adorable accessory. Portman will win no Oscar or critics’ prize for this movie, but if it’s a hit she may convince Hollywood to make room for her beside Anne Hathaway, Katherine Heigl and the other foxy ladies of rom-com. And if somebody gave an award in the undervalued category of lighting up a movie just by showing up and seeming to be himself, the winner would be Ashton Kutcher.