Somewhere in all the swampiness of wasted acting talent and artificially-flavored heteronormativity and a terror of sex that masks itself in acres of naked movie star flesh and filty dialogue, No Strings Attached is hiding a deep, dark secret: it's actually not that bad.

It's not that good either, of course. There's little hope for a romantic comedy starring a talent vacuum like Ashton Kutcher, above and beyond the apparent inability of anyone working in the Hollywood film industry to craft even a semi-credible romcom these days; the January release date seals it. But just often enough, there's a single line of dialogue here or a truly effective acting choice there that suggests that underneath the soulless crust, something recognisably human is buried inside the movie, if only we can be patient and nurture it. Not being a patient man, I am still quite eager to call No Strings Attached a failure; but only a failure, and not the grim, joyless train-wreck that it's so easy to expect from just about everything there is to know about the film.

The hook: Emma (Natalie Portman) is a med student. Adam (Kutcher) is a P.A. on a television show that one suspects was pitched as High School Musical: The Series. They have a history: 15 years ago, Adam made a humiliating pass at Emma at summer camp; 5 years ago, they bumped into one another at a fraternity party and he accompanied her to her father's funeral the next day; one year ago, they discovered that each was living in Los Angeles and swapped phone numbers. All of this is laid out by the film with aggravating slowness over the course of a first act that will not get started with any sort of efficiency, and if you think that 110 minutes seems like an awful lot of time for a paint-by-numbers romcom, guess what: you're absolutely right, and it's shit like this that makes those 110 minutes crawl by like an inchworm on a cold day.

But I was talking about the hook: Emma and Adam are fucking. How exactly they are fucking is immaterial; it's one of the things the movie lays out with a deliberateness of exposition that would have made Leo Tolstoy cough and look at his wristwatch out of the corner of his eye. I'M SORRY. I won't keep harping on how goddamn slow the movie is, but it is one of the chief responsibilities of a comedy to scintillate and bubble and race by at a goodly pace; No Strings Attached almost deserves to be called light drama in this regard.

At any rate, the kids are fucking, and they have a very strict set of rules to make sure they don't fall in love. Most of these were put in place at Emma's insistence, since she has a pronounced emotional block that causes her to fear emotional intimacy more than anything else in the world, for no particular reason other than to enable the plot. There's a late stab at sort of explaining it, but it is both feeble and entirely unconvincing. In the meantime, Adam can't help himself but tumble head over heels. See how crazy it is? You thought it's predictable, but it's not! It's the guy who wants to be all cozy and romantic, and the girl who just wants sex!! Man, those filmmakers sure tricked me!

You know how it ends, of course, but predictability is not the problem here. Okay, it's kind of the problem. But I'm mostly annoyed at how fiendishly No Strings Attached wants to be a bold and brassy tale of sex among the twentysomethings, but ends up being petrified of honest-to-God no strings attached screwing around. The casualness with which most of Kutcher and a lot of Portman get splashed up on the screen, plus screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether's joy at placing dirty words in Portman's mouth - pretty girls cursing is quite edgy now, you know - both tell us that the film is a frank, sex-positive romp; but it is not. The idea underpinning every story beat seems to be: "sex is fun, but if you want to have something meaningful that will keep you from being filled with hate and self-loathing for all your life, it's cuddling with all your clothes on, that's the ticket". And that's not to dismiss cuddling. It's delightful. But there comes a point where American films' abject terror of actually praising sex gets frustrating. Anyway, I'll get another shot at this paragraph when Friends with Benefits comes out in July, so I ought to pace myself.

Its squeamish sexuality aside, the biggest problem with No Strings Attached is simply that it works neither as a narrative nor - more importantly - as a funny narrative. In no small part, it's because Emma is a completely opaque character: we never really get inside her head in any meaningful way. It's also because Meriwether's dialogue is coarse without being clever and Ivan Reitman's directing is very Reitmany. You know, he sort of pounces on the jokes and stomps them like a cockroach. When was his last good movie, anyway? Dave? Because that was a long damn time ago.

And the cast doesn't or can't do much: Cary Elwes just sort of pokes his head up and collects a paycheck, while Kevin Kline manages to wring all the fun he can from the part of Adam's incredibly shitty dad. Greta Gerwig and Olivia Thirlby appear and get nothing to do and thereby get to fund their appearances in more interesting, smaller movies. Kutcher is horrible, because that's just what he does: if he read from the King James Bible he'd somehow be able to make it smarmy. Portman has been getting a lot of flack for appearing in this right in the midst of her Oscar run (which is kind of a weird thing to criticise her for), but if anything, the film is further proof of her talents. It cannot be easy to emerge from that kind of wantonly under-written character and also spend that much time rubbing against Kutcher, and still have virtually all of your dignity intact.

But back to my opening sentiment: this could all be so much worse. It's not that No Strings Attached is awful, it's just completely neutered. A pity, given the concept: can you imagine what a great comedy director in the screwball days could have done with the story of two people who accidentally let personal feelings get in the way of their sexual relationship? You know, back in the days when actual perversity and neurosis was allowed to worm its way in between the lovers? Actually, you don't have to imagine, you can just go rent Trouble in Paradise, Ernst Lubitsch's outrageously sexual 1932 crime farce. It's better than No Strings Attached and it's almost half an hour shorter. You're welcome.