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Let's make a deal
Natalie Portman gets her turn in romantic comedy that explores 'friends-with-benefits' relationships

NEW YORK -- Ah, these kids today. Falling into bed together first chance they get. Not waiting to get to know each other first. Why, in our day ...

Um, yeah, about our day. "We were the generation that brought the concept of free love!" says director Ivan Reitman, 64, whose romantic comedy "No Strings Attached," starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, follows a couple trying to have friends-with-benefits sex without getting all boyfriend-girlfriend about it. So even though your grandpa and my grandma may have been pursuing that idea in the Summer of Love -- and, judging from '40s film noir and old magazine articles about Roaring '20s flappers and such, so were our great-grandparents -- each generation seems to discover on its own that sometimes a man and woman just see each other for sex.

In fact, "No Strings Attached," opening Friday, even seems part of a trend of no-commitment-sex films, among them the recent "Love and Other Drugs," the 2009 indie "Friends (With Benefits)" and the upcoming Justin Timberlake-Mila Kunis "Friends With Benefits." Though, of course, "Seinfeld" went there with Jerry and Elaine in the episode "The Deal" back in 1991.

Throughout all this, one thing remains constant, as Portman points out to us in a telephone interview: "Relationships are not linear as we like to make them in movies." And in modern relationships, she says -- and, at 29, what other perspective could she have? -- "First comes the intimacy, and then comes the relationship."

And as far as "No Strings Attached" goes, first came a robot version of "Hedda Gabler."

That would be "Heddatron," a 2006 off-off-Broadway play by Liz Meriwether, also 29, that helped land the well-regarded comic playwright and Yale grad a spot with a Fox Television project in which New York playwrights penned 10-minute plays. From that, Meriwether says, "I got a deal to write a pilot called 'Sluts' that didn't make it to air" -- the comedy, about four post-college female friends, co-starred Tia Carrere and Lacey Chabert -- "and then I got this movie off that pilot."

The movie, developed under the working title "Friends With Benefits" -- and before that a title unprintable in a family newspaper -- arose from Reitman and a producing partner pitching the idea to up-and-comer Meriwether. Reitman says he wanted to examine "this idea of people in their 20s at a time of Facebook and texting, who have romantic relationships where they don't even see each other for half their conversations."

Meriwether, he says, "went off and a few months later had this extraordinarily funny first draft. She was inexperienced as a screenwriter, so it was a little bit all over the place, but boy, was it funny. And we just started working and structuring it" over the next three years.

In the final product, 80-hour-a-week medical resident Emma Kurtzman (Portman) and TV-show production assistant Adam Franklin (Kutcher) agree to a guilt-free, purely physical relationship. They have a cache of close friends, among them Adam's housemate Eli (Jake Johnson); Emma's BFF and fellow medical student Patrice (indie darling Greta Gerwig, impressive in the big leagues); and their med-student roommate Shira ("The Office" actor-writer Mindy Kaling).

Reitman says Portman -- who recently became engaged to ballet dancer and "Black Swan" choreographer Benjamin Millepied, with whom she is expecting a child -- was always his first choice to play Emma. But Portman -- who aside from the seriocomic "Garden State" (2004) is best known for dramas like Mike Nichols' "Closer" (2004), three "Star Wars" films, "V for Vendetta" (2006) and "Leon," aka "The Professional" (1994), in which she made an unforgettable film debut as a prepubescent hit-girl in training -- says she hasn't been able to snag a rom-com before now.

"People were not sure about me doing a romantic comedy," she says. "I have been offered romantic comedies," but then hit a wall when studios became "worried because I hadn't done one, and studios like to sort of rely on you to appeal to a certain kind of audience." She understands. "They're the business side of it, and it's a safer bet."

For her own part, she says she clicked with Meriwether's script, "which at the time was on the shelf (i.e., not in active development) and nothing's going on with it, they don't know how to make it, and I mean, the character was just so funny that it was one of those experiences where you start reading the lines out loud while you're reading the script, you're so excited to get to say them."

"It wasn't about any specific relationship that I've had," says Meriwether, who has a cameo helping bring out a birthday cake. (Reitman cameos as a "Glee"-like TV-show director.) "It was about a bunch of different experiences I've had dating and failing to date and basically just being out there looking for love in 2009 ... and 2010 ... and 2011," she riffs. "I've had relationships that were at all different levels of definition, and I wanted to write about all of the ways people try to define what's happening between them and kind of can't."

And where is she herself now in this relationship roulette? "I'm not going to answer that!" she hollers in mock outrage. "There might be some strings in my life. There might!"

***

"No Strings Attached"

Starring Ashton Kutcher, Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig, Kevin Kline and Ophelia Lovibond. Directed by Ivan Reitman

Rated R for sexual content and language

Opens Friday at area theaters