I can’t believe Natalie Portman is with that guy.
No, not Benjamin Millepied, the dancer and choreographer to whom she is now engaged, and with whom she is now expecting a baby. I’m fine with that.
I’m talking about her co-star in the new Ivan Reitman romantic comedy “No Strings Attached.” She plays Emma, a doctor with a schedule too busy to accommodate a boyfriend. So she begins a strictly physical relationship — no strings attached — with a friend, Adam, who has a reputation for sleeping around.
And Adam is played by Ashton Kutcher.
Surely this is one of the oddest, on-screen pairings in years. She gets nominated for Oscars, he gets nominated for Razzies. She’s fluent in Hebrew, he barely gets by with English. She dances ballet, he tweets.
Most importantly, of her 26 films on the Rotten Tomatoes website, 18 have positive — or "fresh" — ratings. She makes good movies. Of his 16 films listed on the site, none, zero, zilch, have been rated fresh. He makes crap.
My knee-jerk, almost visceral reaction to him isn’t based solely on these films, however. It’s based on all the other media stuff that seeps into our consciousness despite our best efforts to keep it out.
He produced and hosted the MTV reality show “Punk’d,” an update of “Candid Camera.” Except Kutcher went for celebrities rather than plain folks — making the whole thing feel incestuously Hollywood — and he changed the tone. Some of the cruddier aspects of our culture can be heard in the transformation of the show’s catchphrase: from “Smile! You’re on ‘Candid Camera’!” to “You’ve been punk’d!”
Then there are those Nikon camera ads in which Kutcher, at weddings and restaurants, seems inordinately pleased with himself (“Boo-yah!”) for taking ordinary photos. This, in fact, may be the essential Kutcher personality: exuding extreme, almost obtuse self-satisfaction for doing not much.
Still, it seemed only fair to check out some of his movies. I ended up watching two. OK, I made it through some of “Spread” and 15 minutes of “Killers.”
In the latter, Kutcher is cast against type. He played pretty and dumb in “That ‘70s Show,” then hapless and dumb in rom-coms over the last 10 years, but in “Killers” he’s suddenly a bona fide secret agent, supersmart and supercool, who says things like, “I’ve got a visual on him now. Target confirmed.” It’s painful.
He’s also supposed to be so overwhelmed by Katherine Heigl’s klutzy character that he’s willing to give up this life for a house in the suburbs and weekend barbecues. Except he exudes nothing like love or desire or charm. He exudes nothing. He’s flat. He shows up in a swimsuit in a high-class hotel and Heigl is charmed by his body. That’s it. Basically he’s a male starlet. His entire career is proof that female fans can be as shallow as men.
“Spread” actually plays off this girl-toy image by casting him as Nikki, a would-be actor and current gigolo to the older, richer ladies of L.A. He tells us in voice-over, “I don’t want to be arrogant here, but I’m an incredibly attractive man.” He dispenses relationship advice for a-holes: “Never show you’re impressed — it lowers your market value.” Of course there’s comeuppance. But for most of the movie he’s a self-satisfied jerk.
Kutcher has a moment, though. At one point Nikki is relegated to a dive hotel and, desperate, calls his family back home and talks to his mother. But he lies to her and she hangs up on him. Even she can’t abide him. His mother. And he breaks down. It’s a moment that feels deep and personal. He’s wholly convincing here.
Which means Kutcher is as good for 15 seconds as Natalie Portman has been for 15 years.
Set aside quality for a moment. Doesn’t she know her own oeuvre? Her characters are not supposed to fall for characters like Kutcher. They’re supposed to fall for someone like ... well ... us: the ordinary (Timothy Hutton, Zach Braff), isolated (Hugo Weaving, Jean Reno) and nerdish (Lucas Haas, Melchior Beslon, Jason Schwartzman).
No movie star as pretty as Portman has wound up with so few handsome leading men. She dates down in the movies. Then she breaks our hearts by being too young, devilish or smart. She plays enigmas. Is she still with us at the end of the movie? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Yes, says “Paris, je t’aime.” No, says “Closer.” Maybe, says “Hotel Chevalier.” In “Black Swan,” she even breaks up with herself.
Was “Black Swan” too much for her? For a year she played Nina, a demanding, physical role in this intense, psychological drama, then immediately took on light and carefree parts. “No Strings Attached” is just the first salvo. In April, she plays an ass-kicking medieval warrior in the comedy “Your Highness.” In July, she plays Jane Foster, the blankest of superhero girlfriends, opposite the Son of Odin in “Thor.” All three look awful.
So is this trend a reaction to playing Nina or a continuation of playing Nina? “Black Swan” is all about duality, after all. Nina, a technically perfect ballet dancer, wins the lead in “Swan Lake” but is encouraged to display her wilder, more carefree side. Her director tells her she needs to be less like herself (white swan) and more like the wild child, Lily (black swan), played by Mila Kunis, Kutcher’s former co-star on “That ‘70s Show.” Lily then becomes Nina’s friend, rival, doppelganger, nightmare. Nina sees her everywhere, fears she will take away her coveted role, even as, in the end, Nina is able to tap into her wild side.
Is this what Portman is doing now? Letting loose her black swan? Giving up the technically perfect (“Paris, je t’aime”) for the carefree (“Your Highness”), and leaving critics like myself to channel Nina’s horrible mother and wonder what happened to their "sweet girl"?
Except, for the most part, critics aren't doing this. Early notices of the film have been mixed but leaning positive. In fact, “No Strings Attached” may give Ashton Kutcher his first “fresh” film ever. Natalie Portman may in fact save his career.
Erik Lundegaard is a writer in Seattle.