Dude, where's my star?

As America's celebrity worship becomes increasingly indistinguishable from celebrity loathing, the unreadable Ashton Kutcher is running the best scam of all.

Published August 29, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

"I suppose the crux of their relationship is that to him age doesn't matter and to her size doesn't matter." -- Brittany Murphy, to David Letterman, on ex-boyfriend Ashton Kutcher's relationship with Demi Moore

"Ashton Kutcher better start making better movies if he wants to stay on the cover of People magazine." -- The clerk who sold me my ticket to "My Boss's Daughter"

The backlash against Ashton Kutcher has officially begun, as it often does, about five seconds after people started noticing him in the first place. Still, the ticket clerk is wrong. Kutcher doesn't need to make good movies in order to stay on the cover of People. He just needs celebrity ex-girlfriends insulting his genitalia on national television.

But Kutcher has a lot more than outspoken exes in his arsenal. If Ben and J.Lo have welcomed us into a new world in which celebrity worship is almost indistinguishable from celebrity loathing, then Ashton Kutcher is the rightful ruler of this strange new land, jeering at his own kind from the sidelines even as he ushers a reimagineered Demi Moore down the red carpet.

As our love-hate relationship with celebrities becomes increasingly pathological and the speed with which celebrities enter and exit the public eye steadily increases, Kutcher plays both sides -- and wins consistently. Despite the less than stellar returns and reviews of his latest movie, "My Boss's Daughter," Kutcher has major hits both on TV ("That '70s Show," "Punk'd") and on the big screen ("Dude, Where's My Car?" "Just Married"), separating him from countless sitcom stars who have struggled to establish film careers. He's a teen heartthrob, which means he has the coveted and highly suggestible teenage girl demographic under his thumb, and he makes adult women swoon -- after all, his lanky '70s era appeal makes Justin Timberlake look like one of the Coreys. (For you young 'uns, I mean Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, chumpy teen idols of yesteryear.)

Kutcher could play to pretty-boy type by decorating his arm with the hot young starlet of the moment. Instead, he's boldly dating Demi Moore who, despite a technologically cutting-edge body, is 15 years his senior and a mother of three. Moore may be getting a bigger boost from the photo ops than Kutcher is, but when there are pictures in all the gossip rags, everybody wins. Most important, though, Kutcher has cultivated a rebellious outsider stance with MTV's "Punk'd," where he pulls pranks on high-profile celebrities from Britney Spears to Jack Osbourne. Forget that he refers to most of them as his friends -- Kutcher's role is that of the cool kid who's secretly on the nerds' side, giggling as he exposes the entitlement and narcissism of the celebrity class. But is Kutcher playing every angle of the celebrity game perfectly, diversifying his investments and hedging every bet? Or is his sudden popularity just a happy accident?

With the number of personalities in the public eye who are micromanaged to the point of feeling manufactured, it's not a surprise that a sharp and charismatic character could wield the kind of power Kutcher has. Raised in Homestead, Iowa, Kutcher was a biochemical engineering major at the University of Iowa when he won a 1997 modeling contest and moved to New York to pursue a career. After a year, he tested for two new TV shows and got both, accepting a supporting role as goofy dimwit Kelso on "That '70s Show." The absurd, fun tone of the sitcom, combined with his popularity among teenage fans, helped to form Kutcher's adorable goonball image, and led directly to roles in the infamous "Dude, Where's My Car?" the success of which hinted that Kutcher could draw crowds at the box office.

"My Boss's Daughter" might have overturned that theory, had it been released after it was filmed in 2000. Instead, Miramax shelved it, releasing it last week to cash in on Kutcher's sudden rise in popularity. While the first curse of becoming popular is that all your work, good and bad, is dredged up for the public to sneer over, sneering is about all this movie has to offer.

An amateurish attempt to mirror the high jinks and low humor of the Farrelly brothers' "There's Something About Mary," "My Boss's Daughter" is painfully awkward and out of sync from the first scene, in which Kutcher, horribly miscast as a big dork, swoons over Tara Reid, horribly miscast as a dreamy love interest. In the first awful gag of a long, miserable sequence of awful gags, Kutcher bumbles over to Reid with a stranger's briefcase and tries to make a play when the briefcase accidentally opens and -- oh no! -- there's gay porn inside! Now Reid thinks that Kutcher is, like, gay or something!

"Three's Company"-style misunderstandings are all well and good, as long as they're not passed off as major plot points and Jack and Krissy are on hand to eat cream pies, speak in puns and do dramatic double- and triple-takes until the audience gets the point. No such luck in this flaccid attempt at a romp. Director David Zucker shows none of the comic timing he demonstrated back when he co-directed "Airplane!" and "Naked Gun."

The thin plot centers on one night when Kutcher's pushover character, Tom, house-sits for his boss, played for some unknown reason by Terence Stamp. The boss has a bear trap in his front yard "for keeping the neighbor kids out" (He's a mean guy, get it?), insists that Kutcher remove his shoes in the house, points out some expensive antiques for him to ruin later and informs him that he'll be responsible for feeding his pet owl live mice and inserting rectal suppositories to treat the owl's medical condition ... By the time you hear about rectal suppositories, you've got a pretty good idea the kind of forced, unfunny potty jokes that are in store for you.

Reid, who looks like she just crawled out from under a tanning bed, seems to have the acting chops of a Speak 'n' Spell. Fortunately for Kutcher, he manages to appear unfazed by her pained efforts as he runs through his favorite tricks: the goofy grin, the awkward eye aversion, the klutzy fumble. You have to hand it to him for keeping his energy up throughout each absurdly unrealistic, clunky, madcap scene. He seems to have an enviable ability to have fun with whatever crappy material he happens to be tackling at the moment, and his good times might be ever-so-slightly contagious, if we weren't already soured by one tasteless joke after another. As usual, what's daring in the hands of good writers is hollowed out by imitators in ways that almost turn you against the higher-quality original.

At any rate, here's a hint to those who aspire to shock and provoke audiences with new lows: If you're going to make jokes about Jews, retards, rednecks, breast cancer, O.J. Simpson, "crippleds," Evander Holyfield's ear, "coloreds," Indians, old guys with hot young wives, and women with oozing head injuries, you better at least be sure that they're funny. Funny off-color jokes and painfully unfunny off-color jokes have about as much in common as a crippled Indian has in common with a retarded Jewish woman with an oozing head injury.

Compared to the pointless lowbrow pandering of "My Boss's Daughter," "Just Married," Kutcher's hit movie with ex-girlfriend Brittany Murphy, is a veritable art film. As unspeakably annoying as Murphy's scratchy-voiced coyness and tee-heeing can be, it's still a step up from the tanned blankness of Reid. Kutcher offers a charming performance as a Typical Dude in Love and, despite the predictable plot twists, Murphy and Kutcher at least seem to have a great time with the physical comedy.

Kutcher is a respectable actor. He might even be a very good one; it's tough to tell given the material he's had to work with thus far. What isn't difficult to discern is Kutcher's ease with himself and his ability to have a good time in front of the camera. He has a clear talent for physical comedy that doesn't feel forced, and an easy, natural way of delivering his lines, two qualities that make him a perfect sitcom star. No wonder he's always stood out among the talented cast of "That '70s Show."

But Kutcher's recent rise in popularity begins and ends with the image he presents on his show "Punk'd," a "Candid Camera" for the young celebrity set. The show features the kinds of scenarios that are hell on Hollywood's hothouse flowers: getting strip-searched by aggressive security guards, having their personal space invaded as they try on free clothes at a designer boutique, being informed by the valet that their car was just towed. While the rest of the world navigates a gauntlet of bounced checks, parking tickets, mildew-encrusted showers, and daunting electric bills, Kutcher nudges us and chuckles while we watch Jessica Biel made slightly uncomfortable by a trash-talking 8-year-old boy. What a tragedy, to be at a loss for words just a few minutes before your appetizer arrives at Campanile!

Which points to the real purpose of "Punk'd." While it pretends to focus on publicly shaming high-profile celebrities, the show actually offers viewers the illusion that they're hanging out with a crowd of hip young stars. "I'm gonna play a little joke on my friend Wilmer," Kutcher might tell us with a wink, inviting us into his party-boy good times. Next, a few more celebrities arrive to watch with Kutcher behind the scenes. Soon, it's almost as if we too have a lot of time and money and nothing better to do than play little jokes on Justin Timberlake and Jessica Simpson between the visit to the stylist and dinner at the hottest restaurant in town.

It's a brilliant angle, particularly at a time when reality TV has made audiences more impatient than ever with the idea that anyone who appears on TV deserves special attention or respect. And naturally, the layers of truth and fiction distract the viewer from what amounts to an elaborate, ultra-hip, self-powered publicity machine. Maybe Kutcher dreamt up the show for MTV, as he implies on the show, or maybe that's a creation myth along the lines of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon dreaming up the idea for "Project Greenlight" -- you know, while they were sitting around on that same ratty couch where they stayed up late nights, tapping out the first draft of "Good Will Hunting"?

Maybe Kutcher secretly loathes these clueless celebrities, jeering at them as they find themselves in slightly frustrating or mildly taxing situations, or maybe he instinctively knows just the right chord to strike to pull audiences into the spectacle. "God, celebrities are suckers for free stuff!" Ashton intones, making us feel comfortable joining him on the sidelines, when really we're just looking for an excuse either to stargaze without shame, or to enjoy the illusion of being cool enough to hang with the stars ourselves. Part of the backlash against celebrities, after all, is our resentment that so many people who aren't all that interesting or special have such posh lives, as evidenced by the celebrity profiles we've read, the obsequious fawning of which our jaded minds cut through without much effort. Still, there are times when you can't decide whether to cheer Kutcher on or to call bullshit on the whole enterprise. We're supposed to trust a popular celebrity to mess with other celebrities? What a scam!

Of course, the best moments on "Punk'd" are those that play with celebrity image-creation itself. In one prank, Kelly Osbourne is lured into meeting with "Punk'd" regular Dax Shepard, posing as an MTV image consultant. Telling Osbourne that MTV wants her to go from "Shut Up" (the name of one of her songs) to "sexed up," Dax trots out girls modeling fashions "designed by Christina Aguilera's designer" to which Osbourne responds, "She deserves to be jailed, that woman." Later, he pitches a fake relationship to Kelly and her mom, Sharon, in order to attract tabloid attention:

Dax: But if you just had, like, a temporary marriage, for like a month, with, like, an Ashton Kutcher ... Can I set up a hypothetical? Let's just say we took a handsome celebrity type -- whatever, whoever your pick would be, which we can arrange. Like a Justin Timberlake. Then we have a blurb -- we have you guys leaving a hotel room in the morning, but nothing really happened ...

Sharon Osbourne (playing along): No sex, right?

Dax: And then you divorce a month later. No sex.

Sharon: Look at Britney. She had one picture taken with that Irish actor ...

Dax: Colin Farrell.

Sharon: And it's on every front page.

Dax: That was us. We did that.

Kelly: Who gives a fuck about Britney Spears or Colin Farrell? I'm not them, I don't do that ...

As funny as this scene is, somewhere between the point where Kelly pronounces the image consultants "douche bags" and Justin Timberlake emerges, saying that "When [Kelly] came and sat on my lap at the VMAs, I told her that I was gonna get her back ... so I got her back!" the whole thing gets so dizzying and strange that it's impossible to tell which layers are real and which are constructed. Is Osbourne really being punk'd, or is she pretending to be punk'd? Is this cutting-edge television, or sophisticated P.R.? Is Kutcher's relationship with Demi Moore a publicity stunt, or does he really like her? Is he punking us all?

This kind of confusion is essential, of course, to keeping sophisticated audiences, who've been soaking in celebrity culture for decades now, off guard. When we're suspicious of everything, including even the qualities that seem the most genuine and natural about a celebrity, then blurring the lines between fact and fiction is the only way to win acceptance for a celebrity who, by dint of being in the public eye at this time in history, by dint of having a publicist and a stylist and a manager and an agent and a team of image consultants, is a fraud by nature.

In the face of all this artifice, Ashton Kutcher somehow comes across as 100 percent real.

What a scam!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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