No Strings Attached, by Albert W. Vogt III

Recently, I reviewed This Means War (2012), a somewhat funny romantic comedy with Reese Witherspoon that has two spies competing for her affections.  A brief, but no less important moment in the film is when she decides to have sex with both of them as the deciding factor between the two.  In my article, I railed against this as having disastrous results. Another film that deals with the consequences of supposedly consequence free sex is No Strings Attached (2011).  The title virtually says it all, though our two main characters, Adam Franklin (Ashton Kutcher) and Dr. Emma Kurtzman (Natalie Portman), by the end they seem to move closer to tying the knot.  It is the manner at which they arrive at this decision with which I take issue, as this treatise will demonstrate.

The first time Adam (Dylan Hayes) and Emma (Stefanie Scott) meet each other in No Strings Attached, it is as teenagers at summer camp.  With “I Wanna Sex You Up” by Color Me Badd playing in the background, Adam is crying because his parents are getting a divorce.  Emma, who is bad at emotions, attempts to comfort him.  Adam, who is clueless, makes an awful pass at her that is turned down.  Moving on to their college years, Emma is visiting her best friend Patrice (Greta Gerwig) at the University of Michigan, which is where Adam happens to be going to school.  They meet again at a fraternity party, and while catching up Emma invites him to “this thing” the next day.  “This thing” turns out to be her dad’s funeral, and she had not given him any clue about the occasion.  He attempts to console her later, but is gently rebuffed.  Moving closer to more modern times, they bump into each other again in Los Angeles.  Emma is now interning at a hospital in the area, and Adam is out there working in showbusiness.  Emma and Patrice are strolling along together, and Adam is with his current girlfriend, Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond).  This chance encounter is only in passing, though they say they will keep in touch.  Fast forward another year and Adam and Vanessa have split apart.  Making matters worse is what he finds when he visits his famous father, actor Alvin Franklin (Kevin Kline): Alvin is now dating Vanessa.  In the tried-and-true tradition of romantic comedies, Adam copes with his massive disappointment by acting in in the worse way possible.  He goes to his favorite bar, where his friend Wallace (Chris “Ludicrous” Bridges) bartends, and begins hitting on as many women as he can in order to drown his sorrows in meaningless sex (as if that is a thing).  The drunker he gets, the worse becomes his luck.  Things get hazy and the next morning he wakes up on a couch with Shira (Mindy Kaling) looking at him.  He does not know her, or how he arrived at this location.  Shira suggests they had sex, as does her other roommates, Patrice and Guy (Guy Branum).  The one who fills him in on what actually happened is Emma, who tells him he arrived at their place wasted, stripped off his clothes, did an inappropriate dance, and fell asleep on their couch.  They are in Emma’s room when he is informed of this behavior, and somehow this leads to them doing the deed.  What Emma does not want is a real relationship, citing her crazy work schedule.  Adam goes along with it claiming that he is not in the right emotional place for anything serious (sigh).  Hence, they embark on a series of flings.  It is Adam, who has liked Emma all along, who is the first to “catch feelings” as the kids say these days.  It starts with him doing extra things beyond the parameters of their relationship, like bringing Emma and her roommates things to help them when they are all on their period together.  Emma takes this as too serious of a move, and tells him that they should sleep with other people.  Yet, when Adam is about to do that very thing and she catches wind of it, she chases the two women (yes, two) out of his house with a tennis racket.  She also supports him when he has a hard time dealing with Alvin and Vanessa telling him that they want to have a baby.  The breaking point comes on Valentine’s Day.  They go out together, and Adam admits his love for her.  When she does not respond as he hoped, and wonders why he would say this, he responds that this is what people do.  When she rebuffs him a second time, Adam says that he cannot continue with their arrangement and they stop seeing each other.  Some time passes, and Emma is missing Adam more than she thought she would.  At her sister’s wedding, her mother, Sandra Kurtzman (Talia Balsam), points out to Emma that she is cutting herself off from the world because she is afraid of getting hurt.  Emma then leaves and to return to Los Angeles.  As she is on the way, Adam receives news that Alvin had to be taken to the hospital owing to the strenuous lifestyle he started to lead with Vanessa.  There is reconciliation between them, but more importantly between Adam and Emma, who arrives at the hospital to get Adam back.  The next day, they head to Emma’s sister’s wedding as a couple.

The sexuality in No Strings Attached is played for laughs.  It is hardly alone in this regard.  A casual observer of these kinds of movies might say, well, at least the main characters do not continue with their swinging lifestyles and eventually settle down with each other.  To that, this Catholic says, “great!”  The problem is the method of its exploration of what Hollywood calls “romantic love.”  Far too often, sex is seen as a veritable prerequisite for a healthy relationship, regardless of marital status.  Peruse the magazines lining the shelves leading to the cashier at your local grocery store, and you will see lurid details of how to please your “partner,” that oh so lovely modern word invented for whoever you happen to be doing it with, be it your spouse or otherwise.  In my review of This Means War, I mentioned how Catholicism teaches that sex is special, which is why we reserve it for a husband and wife.  Put differently, it is more than just the sensation you feel from whatever position you manage to get into, although Hollywood and, by extension, our modern culture will tell you that is love, the more intense the pleasure the deeper the feeling.  In the Catholic sense, this sort of titillation is not necessarily bad, though again our culture (read as those outside the Church) posits that we say otherwise.  There are limits, but relations between husband and wife should be pleasurable.  The main purpose is procreative, and that is what films like No Strings Attached miss in their rush to get two attractive people in bed.  Though Adam clearly has somewhat of a more long-term goal in mind, both Emma and he are performing the coitus equivalent of scratching an itch.  While they eventually realize that such actions are ultimately unsatisfactory, as they always are in the long run, they cause themselves a great deal of pain and suffering along the way because of their actions.  Would it not be easier to simply practice abstinence and avoid all the heart ache?

It takes a certain kind of boredom to watch a movie like No Strings Attached.  There is nothing original about it.  Despite the subject matter, there is nothing particularly objectionable about it, either.  What I mean is there is no nudity. Obviously, as a practicing Catholic I strongly advocate a different approach to relationships.  I do not, however, want to adopt a condemning tone.  If you find that you have engaged in such relations, as have I, know that it does not have to come to define you.  Sex before marriage causes problems because God created us with an unspoken knowledge that there is something important about these acts.  What He does not want, though, is for people to permanently turn away from Him.  Let us hope that Adam and Emma do get married and put aside these childish antics.


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