Given his body of work to date, it’s easy to dismiss Ashton Kutcher as a lite comic actor (as opposed to an actor in light comedies), who hit his groove in mindless early 21st-century throwaways a la “Dude Where’s My Car” and “What Happens in Vegas.”
But as he showed earlier this year in the little-seen “Personal Effects” – and as he demonstrates again in the new “Spread” – Kutcher is an actor with range. “Spread” may not amount to much but Kutcher will change perceptions of who he is as an actor for anyone who sees it.
Opening with an eye-popping Steadicam shot that establishes Kutcher’s character, Nikki, as the rooster all the women want to get with at an upscale Hollywood club, “Spread” is about Nikki, a fast-talking gigolo with a smooth line of patter and a highly attuned sense for the needs of wealthy and lonely older women.
Having bailed on his last benefactress, Nikki hooks up with Samantha (Anne Heche), an attorney with big bucks and a lavishly modern spread in Brentwood. Before she knows it, Samantha has Nikki living at her house, servicing her sexual needs, shopping with her credit cards and driving her expensive cars.
Nikki, however, is a user with no conscience. Which means that, as soon as he drops Samantha at the airport for a business trip, he’s cruising the clubs for female companionship to impress with the house where he lives.
David Mckenzie’s film is about the ways a game like Nikki’s gets old – and the increasing chance that Nikki will eventually meet his match: in this case, a young woman (Margarita Levieva) who knows the game as well as he does and can actually reach in and touch his long-hidden feelings.
In that sense, “Spread” offers few surprises. As Nikki begins breaking his own rules, he also reveals his vulnerability. But the best at this game reveal no weaknesses, engage no emotions. When you open yourself up, you stop being the user and fall prey to being used.
Kutcher’s performance is the whole point of seeing this film. He’s cynical, manipulative and free-wheeling, an operator with an eye on the main chance. When he loses control of the game and gets knocked off his stride, he becomes more interesting – and Kutcher does as well. He has the patter down but is able to reveal the uncertainty that eventually blossoms into full-fledged spiritual panic.
Heche has an alternately brittle and needy affect that seems perfect for this character, while Levieva (so good as the party girl in “Adventureland”) can go from inviting to guarded in a blink. Her gaze is piercing, obviously penetrating Nikki’s armor.
Still, Mckenzie can’t keep “Spread” from losing its way; by the end, it’s become a retread of films such as “Alfie,” “Shampoo” and “American Gigolo,” tales that looked at the same sort of slippery stud when he loses his footing.
Kutcher, however, holds your interest and keeps you watching. The journey may be predictable but Kutcher is good enough to make you want to take it with him anyway.