starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman
screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler
directed by Richard J. Lewis
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
starring Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Cary Elwes, Kevin Kline
screenplay by Elizabeth Meriwether
directed by Ivan Reitman
by Ian Pugh It's easier to accept Barney's Version once you realize it doesn't have much to say. Little more than a series of vignettes, the film surveys in piecemeal fashion the life of one Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a Jewish artist who endured three tumultuous marriages (the wives are played by Rachel Lefevre, Minnie Driver, and Rosamund Pike) and the mysterious death of best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman, whom I initially mistook for Hugh Jackman) along the way to producing a popular soap opera. Giamatti doesn't do outstanding work here, but he's reliable in that familiar Giamatti way: perpetually locked in a state of concentration, trying to understand the subtext of whatever fortunes or misfortunes befall him. Seems like we're all trying to figure things out, doesn't it? The film doesn't know whether to focus on life as a comedy or as a drama, and for that reason alone, it feels incredibly disjointed. It should be. It's supposed to be.
Eventually it's revealed that Barney suffers from Alzheimer's in the 21st century, and therefore you might politely call Barney's Version a (much) classier version of The Notebook. The modern-day framing device exists primarily to chronicle the gradual deterioration of Barney's memory. At one point, he can't remember where he parked his car; several scenes later, he can't remember what kind of car he drives. Because Barney's Version places more emphasis on details than on the big picture, it poses familiar questions about the decisions that bring us to where we are today. Could tragedies and heartbreak have been avoided if Barney didn't drink so much, or if he didn't smoke so many cigars? Given that Barney's married frequently and impulsively, could you really pin down a single woman as his one true love? Particularly fascinating is how Boogie's death, and the subsequent accusations of murder, are ultimately treated as yet another footnote in Barney's story--a strange consideration of the roles that other people play in an individual's time on Earth.
The film seems to conclude that regret and retrospect are worthless in the long run. Life is complex and takes us to all manner of unexpected places, only to culminate in forgetfulness and death. (Confronted with the ridiculous circumstances of his loving father's (Dustin Hoffman) demise, Barney alternates between laughter and tears--a worn-out cliché that is nonetheless completely appropriate in context. The same judgment applies to ten years of happy marriage being glossed over in a montage of photographs.) Hardly an original payoff, but what more can be said about a man's life? This may be the deepest question the picture asks. Barney's Version isn't terribly ambitious as far as fictional biopics go, not nearly as heartbreaking as it fancies itself to be--though it's reasonably affecting just the same.
Besides, it's far too common to find movies that boast no ambition at all. Another raunchy, post-Apatow comedy that tries to lay claim to the concept of modern romance (see also: Nanette Burstein's Going the Distance), Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached draws its attention to the phenomenon of fuck buddies, with middling results. Upon discovering that his father (Kevin Kline) has been shacking up with his ex-girlfriend, a discombobulated Adam (Ashton Kutcher) has a one-night stand with casual acquaintance Emma (Natalie Portman). Following their brief liaison, they decide to start a "thing" that will forgo any serious emotional attachments. Inevitably, those attachments form anyway, which might've meant something if the two lead characters had any personality whatsoever. Oh, the actors give the script a fair try--Portman is unparalleled in her ability to look absolutely devastated--but the effort never amounts to anything memorable. I suppose a certain distance is to be expected from a romantic plot that's specifically designed to exclude romance, but Emma and Adam have no discernible lives outside of their "thing." He's a wannabe screenwriter and she's a freakin' doctor--surely there's something to talk about beyond the broad strokes of the movie's premise.
No Strings Attached fills its dead air with lots of blunt sex jokes intended as punches to the gut. Let it be said that Apatow's everlasting contribution to American cinema is the knowledge that a potty mouth alone cannot redeem romcom formula--cracking wise about penises and menstrual cycles won't rehabilitate conventions like wacky parents and supportive BFFs. (After her remarkable turn in Greenberg, the movie's relegation of Greta Gerwig to the latter role should be considered a federal crime.) The bottom line is that No Strings Attached has no aspirations that would grant it the individuality it so desperately craves. It's only interesting if you imagine it as a tragic prequel (or hallucinatory sequel) to Black Swan; get ready to have this conversation again next summer when Mila Kunis foists Friends with Benefits on us. Originally published: January 21, 2011.