Ashton Kutcher, American gigolo

The wisecracking TV host and trophy husband proves he can act in "Spread," a deceptively dark SoCal sex satire

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 13, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Anne Heche and Ashton Kutcher in "Spread."
Anne Heche and Ashton Kutcher in "Spread."

Anchor Bay Films/Dale Robinette

Anne Heche and Ashton Kutcher in "Spread."

Way back in the January snows of Sundance, the Ashton Kutcher gigolo movie "Spread" briefly looked like a hot target for studio acquisitions people, or as hot as anything looked in the depressed film economy of 2009, anyway. This stuff happens a lot at film festivals -- some picture wows the throngs of industry insiders and then vanishes, essentially forever -- but "Spread" seemed to have a lot of ingredients: A Hollywood hunk well-liked by the lay-tees, proving that he could act; a leggy Anne Heche, in an oddly sympathetic cougar role; a talented director (Scotsman David Mackenzie) still awaiting a mainstream breakthrough; plenty of sex and sunshine and a peculiar, dark-comic edge.

I remember coming out of the premiere at the Eccles Center, the biggest of Sundance venues, and watching some English dude beeline across the parking lot, yakking into his phone a mile a minute. He was one of those shaved-head, lower-middle-class Limey hooligan types who do a lot of the most appalling grunt work in the film biz, and he was telling some guy named Mick -- or, more likely, Mick's assistant -- to drop everything and come check out "Spread" the next morning.

I don't know how Mick liked the movie, but if I were a little bit smarter than I am, I might have observed, even at the time, that that shaved-head dude and me and Mick do not constitute a viable demographic. "Spread" does contain an intriguing blend of ingredients, but it doesn't add up to mainstream hit potential, which is why it's suddenly being splashed out in a poorly publicized theatrical release on the road to home video. On one hand, the contrast between its glitzy, trashy, "Gossip Girl"/"O.C."/"Melrose Place" surface and the dark, bleak, scorpion-sting satire at its center is too jarring for Kutcher's fans in the mass audience. On the other, the indie-film hipoisie are likely to spurn it; there's no Diablo Cody nudge-nudge-wink-wink quality to Jason Dean Hall's screenplay, and it doesn't exactly reverberate with wrenching, low-budget sincerity either.

But I'll make a case for "Spread," if I can. Mackenzie is a consummate stylist, one of British cinema's emerging 21st-century talents, who has displayed a remarkable ability to make interesting movies that get in their own way and never reach wide audiences. I thought his overtly Hitchcockian "Asylum" was a gorgeous and vastly underappreciated film, and "Mister Foe" (released as "Hallam Foe" in Britain), which was more reminiscent of Kubrick or Michael Powell, was a hilarious, evocative, intriguing failure.

With "Spread," Mackenzie follows the London-to-L.A. flight path of many British directors before him, and focuses his withering Scottish gaze on the soulless sexuality of the Southern California rich and wannabe-rich. Along with such obvious reference points as "Shampoo" and "American Gigolo," the results suggest a mixture of early Paul Verhoeven and Tony Richardson's legendary film version of Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One." So, yeah, "Spread" is too clever by half to be an actual hit, while also lacking snob appeal. Too bad about that. Still, if the very funny, very dark and very precise thing that Kutcher and Mackenzie pull off here floats your boat, then getcher tickets right now -- or just wait six weeks, because this one's likely to go right through the theatrical ecosystem and onto DVD lickety-split. You can check out the "Spread" trailer below -- and here's the guts of what I wrote about the movie from Sundance:

"Spread" is the first American-made movie for fast-rising Scottish director David Mackenzie, and it stars Ashton Kutcher as a Hollywood gigolo who makes a living by latching on, literally and figuratively, to older women. I'm not even going to try to make some joke connecting that to Kutcher's real love life because A) I bet somebody's already come up with a killer line about that, and B) Kutcher's love life actually bears no relationship to this film.

Kutcher turns out to have terrific acting chops well beyond the doofus self-mockery of his TV-host and pitchman personas. His character, Nikki, is an all-American pretty boy grown worldly-wise before his years, who narrates part of the movie after the fashion of William Holden in "Sunset Boulevard." Although that's a definite influence it's not a spoiler (i.e., Nikki isn't dead). An impressive inverted triangle of gym-toned muscle but not exactly the brightest bulb in the palm tree, Nikki at first seems to have all the morals and all the insight of a great white shark. He spots a single, long-legged, pushing-40 professional woman in a nightclub (it's Anne Heche). Confirming that she's got a house in the Hollywood hills and a Mercedes SUV, he moves in for the kill.

As calculated as Nikki's entire approach is -- he has rules for first-night sex (don't make it too good!), for how to wake up the first morning-after (don't) and for a self-scored points system that gradually ensnares the victim (cooking her dinner is good, but cooking her a bad dinner is better) -- a few micrograms of his soul are still swimming around in there. Otherwise there wouldn't be a story to tell. Mackenzie delivers that story as a blend of sex comedy, dark satire, and morality tale that recalls various aspects of "Shampoo" and "Less Than Zero" and "The Graduate," but has a couple of nifty surprises and a poisonous sting in its tail that's all its own. Heche is tremendous in a difficult role -- I refuse to discuss the surgery her character undergoes, in an effort to keep Nikki away from younger hotties -- but Margarita Levieva is too much of a cipher as the eventual Ms. Right who captures Nikki's heart and turns his thoughts away from courtesanship.

"Spread" opens Aug. 14 in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, Seattle and Austin, Texas. Other cities may follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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