A star can open a romantic comedy, but a protagonist who doesn’t make sense will piss off the movie’s audience forever.
These days, her single mom martyrdom due to a mendacious politician's badmouthing is the topic, but during the first two months of 2011, you heard two things about Natalie Portman: one, she was a shoo-in to win the Oscar for Black Swan, and two, what was up with her in that Ashton Kutcher movie?
Everyone I know or read who’s seen it has pretty much the same take on Portman's lead character: by the picture’s midpoint, you find yourself wondering, What’s her problem? Why doesn't she just give it up and go with the guy?
It's the case of the missing character logic: Somewhere amidst the mysterious development process that turned a sharp-edged, LOL-funny spec script called Fuckbuddies into the gummy, congenial mess that is No Strings Attached, the essence of its leading player got lost.
Let us pause to praise screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether’s first pass. Fuckbuddies, darkly true to its deliberately provocative title, was a refreshingly subversive, witty piece of work, with giddy flights of lustily scatalogical dialogue. You can still see and hear bits and pieces of it floating, unmoored, in the fear-based dodge of a script that makes No Strings Attached about half of a decent romantic comedy.
The original script did in fact supply a solid back story for Portman's role, the “Sex only, please” heroine Emma, establishing that while she's "not into affection," Emma is also mourning the death of her father - an idea nicely tweaked by news that Dad wasn't such a great guy, that Emma even feels her mother should have left him. What you understand about Emma is: Heroine is afraid of commitment because she fears more loss and pain - and doesn't trust such commitments to begin with. This is the simple but strong rationale for Emma that got thrown away en route to the screen.
Rom-com writers, check it out: No Strings Attached did pretty well, largely due to star-power and what was left of Meriwether's humor, but people actively dislike its heroine. Because Emma seems weirdly obstinate in her insistence that she's no good in romantic relationships (which wasn't really the problem, originally), and gives us no significant clue re: what's to keep her from falling for cute, nice guy Kutcher, we get fed up with her, halfway in. We grow so distanced from Emma that although we take satisfaction in her eventually realizing she's screwed up, and we enjoy her suffering and redemption, we never entirely forgive the movie for bewildering us. And if it wasn't Natalie playing Emma, we'd probably really hate her.
Protagonists don't need to be sympathetic, or even likable - you screenwriters know that (see: every well-loved anti-hero from Scarlett O'Hara to Tony Soprano). They need to be empathetic, as in understandable. We identify with a rom-com heroine because she makes sense to us - whether she's as seemingly loony as Annie Hall or as supposedly uptight as Sandra Bullock's taskmaster boss in The Proposal (which includes, incidentally, one of the most effective "This is why I am the way I am" speeches for such a heroine in recent memory). Whether you liked or disliked the recent Love and Other Drugs, I'll bet you had no problem getting on the right page with Anne Hathaway's character, a woman whose big bad illness made her push even the rightest Mr. Right away.
Romantic comedies, built on the audience's rooting for the lead characters to become a couple, are particularly demanding on this front: we have to accept and understand a heroine's emotional logic when it comes to love. You don't have to (nor should you) hit us over the head with it, but you do have to deliver a sense of why she's ready to love, and/or what within the character is getting in the way of her passion. Otherwise, we don't believe the love and passion when it ultimately emerges.
Emma in Fuckbuddies was empathetic enough to help sell a sneakily subversive spec script - and get an actress like Portman on board. Emma in No Strings Attached is leaving audiences annoyed. The heroine who's got her most significant blanks filled in is the one I'd rather write.