A few years back, Liam Neeson took the lead role in a Europe-based revenge thriller called Taken (unseen by this reviewer) about a father looking for his kidnapped daughter. It seemed an odd choice for Neeson, who was first noticed in a Woody Allen film and has generally kept his head in the rarefied world of “A Grade” pictures, including, of course, Shindler’s List. But an odd thing happened – Taken was, if not so much critically, a massive financial success, in cinemas but also very strongly on DVD, and all of a sudden the tall Irishman with the husky voice has found himself, at the age of 58, an action hero. There is no real other reason for the existence of Unknown. Set in snowy Berlin (easily the most interesting aspects of the film are its locations), this thriller about a doctor, due to give a lecture at an international medical conference, who, after a taxi accident, seems to have had his identity stolen, feels redundant and old-hat, like a very expensive film-school project: “make a film in the style of Hitchcock”. We’ve seen it all before – the best example being the first and second Bourne films: issues of identity and memory loss combined with wintry Euro-cations and breakneck car chases. In fact, the makers of the Bourne films would have every right to feel ripped off by this film, which borrows their template extensively. Neeson brings his normal grandeur and presence to an unfortunately annoyingly written role: the poor actor has to say “I’m doctor Martin Harris!” about fifty times before we reach the snowy credits. More devastatingly, January Jones (Betty in Mad Men) seems completely out of her depth here – it feels like her terrific work in that show was a fluke, because she is neither believable nor interesting in the (once again) extremely underwritten role of Harris’ wife. Only Diane Krueger, from Inglorious Bastards, makes a strong impression as the German taxi driver who must team up with Harris to help him figure out the truth (of course!). The twists aren’t predictable so much as banal; the music is completely forgettable and the whole enterprise feels like a chore, rather than a work of passion, for all involved. Neeson tragically lost his wife Natasha Richardson a few years ago to a freak skiing accident, and there’s no denying him the right to keep himself busy with undemanding material for awhile, but this material is so undemanding I cannot imagine anyone finding it genuinely thrilling.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED ** 1/2
Natalie Portman is a class act, and has been since she burst onto the screen and into the general filmgoing consiousness at the age of fourteen in The Professional opposite Jean Reno. Since then her choices have been exemplary – Heat for Michael Mann, Everyone Says I Love You for a still-in-his-prime Woody Allen, Cold Mountain for Anthony Minghella, Closer for Mike Nichols and of course her breathtaking, Oscar-nominated performance in the current release Black Swan (my favourite film of this Oscar year). She’s also delved into some big-budget claptrap (the three most recent Star Wars movies, which probably should have been avoided) but she has pretty much avoided the “big studio rom-com” – read: the one with all the clichés, the one that’s totally predictable, the mushy, crappy unfunny ones that seem to keep actresses like Drew Barrymore, Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston in constant employment. No Strings Attached at first glimpse seems like a personal betrayal: her co-star, Ashton Kutcher, has no where near as “serious” a CV as Portman, and Ivan Reitman, her director here, is best known for massive studio chucklefests such as Ghostbusters, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Six Days Seven Nights, Junior, Dave, Kindergarten Cop, Twins, Stripes, Meatballs et al. As such he is a powerhouse of Hollywood moneymaking – one of the more successful directors, financially, in history – but not known for his subtlety – nor for romantic comedy. Looking beneath the surface, however, No Strings Attached – although hung on a slight premise – tries very hard to be smarter than your average rom-com. In fact, in its best moments it feels like a female-skewed Knocked Up – the characters feel kind of real, or at least as though they are responding to their given circumstances rather than responding to the whims of the screenwriter and the demands of the studio’s marketing department and focus group results. The cinematography is lush, subtle and rich – far more so than in your average Hollywood rom-com, which are seemingly designed to keep you awake with brightness on a Friday night – and the supporting characters – while certainly suffering from “rom-com quirky writing” – are played by actors who play up what truth there is to find in them rather than play up the quirk. As Emma, the girl afraid of relationships (the premise is really that simple), Portman is luminescent – if her intention in doing a studio rom-com was to prove she could do it better than anyone, she’s certainly achieved that here. She never hits a false note or beat, and there are moments when she comes up with such delightfully off-beat choices – sudden rushes of vocal or physical energy that make her tiny body jiggle with ecstasy – that your only possible hope as a viewer is to fall, deeply, in love with her. Unfortunately Ashton Kutcher as Adam, her romantic lead, just doesn’t have the same chops or likeability – or at least certainly doesn’t have them on display in this movie. To be fair, his character is written in only one key – he is meant to be perfect in every way (!) – but Kutcher seems trapped in mannerisms that belong in another movie – one that doesn’t take itself as seriously as this one. They’re unmatched actors, and it makes for an unmatched movie. Also, the last thirty-five minutes or so are painfully slow, unfunny, and unbelievably predictable – which is what the movie, so far, has been trying not to be, and thus this comes as a terrible disappointment and really contributes to a feeling of being ripped off, since things had started so promisingly. In intention, much of its acting, its smarter than average script, and in the care given to its visuals, for awhile No Strings Attached is much better than your average rom-com – until it almost becomes a homage to one, and tosses away its own integrity.