The new Ashton Kutcher-as-gigolo flick Spread, its title evoking images of splayed-open legs, wants to be taken seriously. If the actor-ly, urban cowboy growl that Kutcher affects didn’t clue you in, the movie itself lets you know this over and over with its forced narrative parallelism, its aping of iconic shots from The Graduate and its copious, pelvis-grinding nudity which, you know, is totally a sign of how modern and gritty and real and deep it is. Yes, it’s another sins-of-grind-you-down-Hollywood morality tale, except one in which director David Mackenzie (Mister Foe) and writer Jason Hall do little to advance a narrative that connects on more than a shimmery, physical level.
Kutcher plays Nikki, a twentysomething loafer who trades on his looks and has an aversion to all things untrimmed from seeing his mom’s giant mound of pubic hair as a kid. Nikki uses his prowling charisma and easygoing charm to get beautiful (and hopefully older, well-to-do) women to buy him things. He has a friend, Harry (Sebastian Stan), who stores his stuff for him, but Nikki otherwise lives like Nick Stahl’s character in Terminator: Rise of the Machines (“off the grid,” except for a cell phone, naturally), without an apartment or car, doling out sexual favors for ladies and depending on them to land couches and beds for the evening, and beyond.
After some requisite Hollywood-is-hell voiceover, Spread immediately throws together Nikki and Samantha (Anne Heche), a stunning, middle-aged lawyer with a great house offering stunning views of the Hollywood Hills. Some club-set smooth-talk wins him an evening at her place, which he quickly parlays into a credit card for some stay-in breakfast, shopping trips and a new pad. Nikki can’t stand too much of a good thing, though — continued dalliances with an ex-girlfriend, Emily (Rachel Blanchard), also speak to that, until she wises up — so when he meets waitress Heather (The Invisible‘s Margarita Levieva), Nikki tries to add her to his list of conquests, only to find out that she’s a gender-flipped, mirror image version of him. After catching him cheating, Samantha throws him out, so Nikki begins anew his chase of Heather. But will their similarities unite them, or doom any chance at a relationship?
In certain ways, Spread feels like the adaptation of some lost Bret Easton Ellis novel, before he got into drugs and wild, satiric hyperbole, crossed, perhaps, with a story-strand from The Real World. The film nominally succeeds in sketching out the on-the-grift underbelly of the City of Angels, but its young characters don’t ring true beyond two-dimensional kids looking for hot hook-ups, because we never see any other manifested ambition, artistic or otherwise. What brought them to Los Angeles, and are they really trying to make it as actors and actresses, writers or musicians? How are their sacrifices in body, dignity or time feeding and fueling their pursuits — or are they only pushing them further away? (We know the answer to this, of course, but, damningly, it’s not because the movie shows us.) Spread is a flesh-peddling fantasy, nothing more, nothing less.
Some of the gigolo detail here is at least passably intriguing — Nikki’s explication of creating relationship equity through a points system, for instance. But director Mackenzie is no Larry Clark, and all of the player-gets-played stuff that Hall and Mackenzie want to explore simply doesn’t play at all, either emotionally or just logically. Nikki and Heather are uninteresting characters individually, and doubly so when stuck together. It doesn’t help, either, that the movie expends much energy telling us what Nikki thinks of his surroundings and situation in general, but not Heather specifically. The sizzle that pays for all this dawdling, faux-philosophical voiceover comes in the form of much interstitial fucking, and nudity. Before the screening I attended began, I jokingly asked a colleague what the over/under was on Kutcher shirtlessness… 17 minutes? How close I was; perhaps I should investigate a second career as a Vegas oddsmaker.
Wearing skimpy bikinis and often a lot less, Heche goes to great lengths to napalm any lingering memories of her time spent with Ellen DeGeneres, and probably comes out of the movie in the best light, because she at least sketches a believable, fully embodied “cougar” — a successful career woman more than happy to open her home and wallet, but one also capable of rapaciousness. The script requires her character to do some stupid things, but she makes you at least feel the sting of her pain.
As for Kutcher, meanwhile, one could certainly make the argument that Nikki, since he depends on the largesse of women for his survival, is completely, and always, playing a character himself — hence the accent, hipster suspenders and what not. But the script never digs into the character deeply enough to make that assertion fly. Consequently, Kutcher’s performance feels like a breezy, not particularly well thought out thing — like he’s just trading, loosely and lazily, on a glad-handing, amiable image and public knowledge of the fact that he’s married to an older woman. Spread thin, there are no new insights here. (Anchor Bay, 98 minutes, R)