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How And Why “No Strings Attached” Became My Favorite Romance Movie

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A few years back, I cited “Crazy/Beautiful,” an underrated cinematic gem from 2001, as my favorite romance movie. That movie, which I feel has aged better than similar movies from previous decades, has a special place in my heart and it always will. It was the first romance movie that I genuinely enjoyed as both a movie and a love story.

However, I’m here to announce that my ranking has recently changed. I still love “Crazy/Beautiful,” but it is no longer my favorite romance movie. That rank now belongs to “No Strings Attached,” the sexy romantic comedy from 2011 starring Ashton Kutcher and future Thor, Natalie Portman. As of this moment, it’s a rank that will be very difficult for any future movie to top.

The premise of “No Strings Attached” and how it became my favorite romance movie is a remarkable story, in and of itself. This is one of those movies I didn’t expect to be so impactful. I ignored it when it initially came out in theaters. The premise sounded generic and it didn’t help that a similar (and inferior) movie called “Friends With Benefits” came out at the same time.

This is even less romantic than it looks.

It’s a common romance trope. Two people decide to eschew traditional dating methods and just stick to sex. They don’t want anything serious. They just want steady, enjoyable sex, minus the complications that relationships bring. It starts off fun and sexy. Then, things get serious when emotion and jealousy enter the picture. Eventually, both characters realize they love each other and that’s the end of that.

It’s not an overly elaborate premise for a love story. I’ve written more than my share of those as an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It can be a great love story when done right. The problem is it’s rarely done right. It’s also painfully predictable. It’s next to impossible to evoke decent drama when the conflicts and resolutions are so obvious. That was what made “Friends With Benefits.”

That was also why it I didn’t bother seeing “No Strings Attached” for years. I thought it seemed too generic. Then, on a whim, I decided to check it out on Hulu. I fully expected to turn it off halfway through once the plot settled into familiar patterns. I freely admit I was dead wrong. I pre-judged this movie and that was a mistake on my part.

By the time the credits rolled, I was smiling from ear-to-ear and shaking my head in disbelief. This movie did something I didn’t expect it to do. I didn’t even think it was possible, given the sheer volume of romance I’ve written and consumed. It struck all the emotional chords it needed to and then some. Most romance movies these days are lucky if they can strike just a few.

To appreciate this, you can’t just look at the movie through its general plot summary. At its core, “No Strings Attached” follows the basic script of two people agreeing to casual sex in lieu of a formal relationship. However, what makes this movie stand out is how it navigates this premise through its two main characters, Emma Kurtzman and Adam Franklin.

Before these two characters ever start having sex, the movie takes time to establish who they are and why they decide to seek such an arrangement. Adam and Emma aren’t just a couple of attractive strangers who cross paths and decide they like casual sex. They’ve actually known each other for years, albeit informally.

The first 10 minutes of the movie are dedicated to showing that they both end up in such a frustrating place in their personal lives. Adam just broke up with his girlfriend, Vanessa. Then, his father, a former TV star, decides to start dating her. Naturally, that leaves him pretty messed up.

Emma’s situation is not much better. Before they reconnect, her father dies and she doesn’t demonstrate the greatest coping skills. Later on, her sister, Katie, is getting married and her coping skills still haven’t improved. Neither she nor Adam are complete wrecks, but they’re trying to navigate difficult personal matters and failing miserably.

These issues have nothing to do with romance, sex, or loneliness. They’re legitimate, relatable issues that real people deal with, even if they’re not as attractive as Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. That makes their problems and their need for comfort feel genuine. It also makes their pursuit of a more casual, less complicated relationship more understandable.

This is where both the story and the romantic chemistry in “No Strings Attached” gains its endearing appeal. It helps that it’s a very sexy appeal, as well, but that’s only ever secondary, at most. As Adam and Emma pursue their new arrangement, we see that it’s not just fun and sexy. It’s genuinely good for them.

Being together in this unique arrangement helps them in many ways. They’re better able to navigate the other issues in their lives. Some of those issues have to do with work. Adam is trying to make it as a writer on a TV show while Emma is trying to further her career as a doctor. Others are on a more personal front with Adam’s dad being a heavy source of drama.

Whatever the issues, the relationship helps Emma and Adam in ways that are subtle, but noticeable. Being together, even if it isn’t romantic, is genuinely good for them. Even when new stresses enter the picture, they help each other get through it. They get to a point where you can’t help but root for them, both as individuals and as a couple.

That journey to something more serious than casual lovers does happen, but it’s chaotic. Considering how predictable stories about casual lovers tend to be, this is one of the most refreshing parts of “No Strings Attached.” It doesn’t happen all at once. There are even some major setbacks along the way. However, there’s a clear and logical progression with Adam and Emma’s romantic journey.

They start out as casual acquaintances.

Then, they start enjoying each other’s company.

Then, they become friends.

Then, they become lovers.

Then, they start to legitimately care about one another.

Then, they start to develop deeper feelings for one another.

Then, they confront those feelings together.

Finally, they fall in love.

Again, it’s not a smooth transition. There are moments in which the extent of their romantic connection is unclear. What Adam and Emma want from one another seems to fluctuate, which makes them feel very human. While it never comes off as entirely one-sided, it never feels like a bland love story in the mold of a fairy tale.

In addition, “No Strings Attached” also avoids the common trap of making sex seem like this huge complication for real romance. In many other love stories of this nature, sex is often framed as this make-or-break act for a couple. Either having sex destroys the romance or it makes the romance inevitable. It gives the impression that you can’t have sex without falling in love.

Beyond reinforcing harmful notions espoused by repressive purity culture, it undercuts the substance of the romance. It implies that it’s contingent on sex in order to blossom. The romance and the sex in “No Strings Attached” is portrayed with more complexity. One never depends on the other, but they do plenty to complement each other.

Ultimately, great sex isn’t the reason Emma and Adam start to fall in love with one another. It acts more as a catalyst. By being together, they’re not just happier and more sexually satisfied. They become better at navigating the various quirks of their respective lives. That’s basically the epitome of a healthy romance.

More than anything else, the end of the movie clearly establishes that these two people want to be together. Their love is not something they can’t avoid or escape. It’s not bound by destiny and ordained by higher forces. Emma and Adam get together because they choose to.

The love they find is not some burden that provokes jealousy or loneliness. They end up together because they want to be together. Their love works because it’s real, sincere, and genuine. This is what makes the final few minutes of the movie the most cathartic I’ve ever experienced in a romance movie. It was those final minutes that sealed “No Strings Attached” as my new favorite romance movie.

There are many other elements of this movie that I could praise for hours on end. I could probably write an entire book on why this movie worked so much better than “Friends With Benefits.” I’ll save that discussion for another time. For now, I encourage anyone out there with a taste for romance to check this movie out. Give it a chance, like I did. Let me know if it had a similar impact.

I don’t doubt more romance movies will come along and challenge “No Strings Attached” for the title of my favorite. I watch more romance movies than most straight men and it may only be a matter of time before another movie comes along that exceeds both this and “Crazy/Beautiful.” I honestly look forward to that day, but “No Strings Attached” sets the bar pretty damn high.

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On My Favorite Romance Movie: “Crazy/Beautiful”

When it comes to romance movies, most men will never admit they have a favorite. They usually won’t admit to ever having sat through a movie, unless they were with a woman they were desperately trying to bang. It’s just not a very macho thing to do, admitting you actually enjoy romance movies.

However, if you hook those same macho men up to a polygraph, strap a jumper cable to their balls, and threaten to shave their head with a brick, though, most will concede that they have watched a romance movie. They’ll even admit they have a favorite. Up the voltage on the jumper cables, they’ll even admit to getting choked up while watching it.

There’s no need to subject me to such torture. I freely admit that I’ve watched romance movies from beginning to end. I’ve even seen them in theaters by myself and without a date. I’m a romance-loving guy. I admit that with no shame. If anyone wants to give me crap about it, then they can kiss my romance-loving ass.

I even have a favorite romance movie, one that I think has inspired me in my efforts to become an erotica/romance writer. It wasn’t some big blockbuster. It wasn’t some shameless Oscar push either. It didn’t even have killer robots, explosions, or comic book characters. I’ll give everyone who has noted my love of comics a moment to stop gasping.

It wasn’t a box office smash. It wasn’t a critical darling either. I don’t care. It’s still the premier romance movie by which I measure all others. It came out in 2001 and it’s called “Crazy/Beautiful.” I’ll give everyone another moment to stop rolling their eyes.

This isn’t one of those romance movies that’s too cheesy or too dramatic. It’s also not overly serious or overly cynical, either. It’s just a sweet, sexy story about two young people falling in love, going through some upheavals, and coming together in the end. Again, it’s one of those concepts that gets the jaded cynics of the world to roll their eyes, but still feels undeniably real at the end of the day.

The story is somewhat basic, but mature in a sense. The characters involved are Nicole Oakley, played by Kirsten Dunst just before her fame peaked with “Spider-Man,” and Carlos Nuñez, played by Jay Hernandez, who is best known for his work on TV shows like “Nashville” and “Gang Related.” From the very beginning, there’s some very heated chemistry between both characters.

Like many other love stories, both characters are from different worlds. Nicole is the rebellious child of a wealthy, but broken family. Her mother is gone, but her father remarries a woman who she does not get along with. Being young, beautiful, and hormonal, she ditches the comfortable settings of her home and looks for adventure on the rougher parts of town.

That’s where she finds Carlos, a young Latino man with dreams of rising above his rough upbringing. He’s on the football team. He has dreams of becoming a pilot. He’s not some stereotypical bad boy that women get with for all the wrong reasons. He’s the kind of guy you actually root for to succeed. That’s what draws Nicole to him and the chemistry they create is pretty damn hot.

It doesn’t take some horrible tragedy or elaborate circumstance for these two to come together. Nicole and her friend are just out partying on the rough side of town when their paths cross. They flirt, they tease, and they fool around like actual, normal teenagers do in real life. It’s sweet, it’s sexy, and it feels so genuine and real.

That’s a big part of what appeals to me and what sets movies like “Crazy/Beautiful” apart from typical romance, many of which follow the same bland formula. Many romance movies feel as though the love between the two characters needs to be epic, intense, or tragic. Sure, that has created some pretty iconic romances, but those romances are iconic for a reason.

Not every couple needs to be Romeo and Juliet or Princess Leia and Han Solo from “Star Wars.” In fact, trying to recreate those romances can underscore the actual chemistry between them. It happens all the time in comics, especially with couples like Batman and Catwoman. It happens even more in movies, especially when tragedy is a big factor, like “Titanic.”

Granted, these kinds of romances have their unique appeal, but they’re often lacking in depth and development. That’s where “Crazy/Beautiful” really shines. It gives amazing depth to Nicole and Carlos’ relationship. It actually goes through a process, not unlike the one actual people use when they fall in love.

First, they meet and feel an attraction. Then, they start exploring that attraction. They start learning about each other, from their hopes and dreams to their past and failures. They actually learn about each other and even help each other, something failed romances in the real and fictional world often fail to do.

Then, there are the sexy moments. Yes, there are many sexy moments in “Crazy/Beautiful” that men and women alike can appreciate. There are scenes where both characters get naked. It’s a time when Kirsten Dunst’s sex appeal was at its peak. There are scenes where she’s walking around in her underwear and it’s a true sight to behold.

It helps add to another important element in “Crazy/Beautiful” that stands out. It’s very sex positive. Throughout the movie, the sexy moments Carlos and Nicole share aren’t full of complications or reservations. They’re just sweet, intimate moments. Some are loving. Some are just two horny teenagers wanting to get laid. It’s never shown in a negative light. They might be the most sex positive themes outside of the “Deadpool” movie.

Beyond the sex and the chemistry, the biggest and arguably most important element that makes “Crazy/Beautiful” my favorite romance movie is how strong the romance becomes. It’s not enough that Carlos and Nicole share attraction and sexual chemistry. It’s how they actually complement each other, making one another stronger in the end.

What really makes that connection stand out shows towards the end when they each show that they’re willing to sacrifice for each other. They’re willing to step off the path they’ve laid for themselves, find each other, and forge a new path together. That’s the kind of sacrifice real couples learn to make, but are rarely shown in movies that don’t rip-off “Titanic.” I’ll give a moment for “Avatar” fans to stop gritting their teeth.

When all is said and done, Nicole and Carlos are both better because of their love for each other. It’s not just because they’re have someone to have sex with that they love. Their lives objectively improve. Carlos realizes his dream of being a pilot. Nicole develops a better relationship with her family. Their love, and all its sexy chemistry, is a net gain for everybody.

It may not appeal to those who think every love story needs to have an element of tragedy. There are moments in “Crazy/Beautiful” where the story could’ve taken a tragic turn. That doesn’t happen and that’s a good thing. It makes for a satisfying, genuine, heart-felt ending.

You can easily see Nicole and Carlos getting married, having kids, and still having hot sex. It’s a romance that feels truly complete. It has that Hollywood sex appeal, but it’s genuine enough that you can easily see it happening in the real world.

That’s a big part of why this movie appealed to me so much when I first saw it. It gave the impression that love could exist in the real and fictional world. It could be sexy, intimate, and powerful without aliens, robots, or super powers. To someone who had grown up on comic books and cartoons, that was a revolutionary idea for me.

While “Crazy/Beautiful” will never go down in history as an epic love story, its ability to be romantic, sexy, and real helps set it apart. It presents a romance that feels achievable in the real world. I believe that we all need that sort of thing every now and then. As fun as epic love stories can be, sometimes it’s refreshing to know that two ordinary people from different walks of life can fall in love and have hot sex.

Maybe there will come a day when I see another romance movie that tops “Crazy/Beautiful” in all the relevant ways. While “Deadpool” came close, “Crazy/Beautiful” still holds a special place in my heart and my pants. It helped influence me in my passion for writing erotica/romance. I sincerely hope its impact helps me craft something as romantic and sexy.

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Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights, Marriage and Relationships