Apart from a leading character – and an Ashton Kutcher performance – that don´t quite feel right, David Mackenzie´s Spread is a surprisingly effective drama. Most importantly, this isn´t the broad Kutcher vehicle that trailers and advance word might have implied; director Mackenzie – best known, perhaps, for Young Adam, which earned an NC-17 rating for its explicitness – has a strong feel for the material, and overcomes some occasional obviousness in the script by debuting writer Jason Dean Hall.
Kutcher stars as Nikki, a womanizer who we first meet as he leaves a Beverly Hills home carrying a backpack. Here´s the catch: Nikki is homeless, carless, and jobless, and his survival depends on seducing wealthy women and forging an instant relationship that allows him to stay with and live off them for as long as he likes. He´s the Richard Gere character from American Gigolo, just less up front about his profession.
Within the first few minutes of the film, Nikki is scouting a bar for a female companion. He sets his eyes on Samantha (Anne Heche): after a few quick lines he wears down her initial resistance, and soon she takes him home. The next morning, while she goes to work, Nikki charms his way into staying at her luxurious house, swimming in her pool, and preparing the next steps to bolster the faux relationship. He has a system for this: one point for flowers, two points for dinner, three for an orgasm. 26 points and he can kick back and watch football.
But Nikki´s number is up when he falls for Heather (Margarita Levieva), a diner waitress who happens to be driving an $80,000 car. In other words, she´s a female version of him.
Nikki not only screams metrosexual, but goes a full stop beyond; half an hour into the film I was convinced the character was a homosexual con artist scamming elderly women, his motivations to be explained in an upcoming twist. That twist never comes, but Nikki´s fashion continues to distract: the shoes, jewelry, suspenders, cuffs on his jeans, two-day stubble, the relationship with his friend (Sebastian Stan).
It´s especially hard to imagine a successful woman like Samantha instantly falling for him. Nikki is a long way from Gere´s Julian Kay, who defined American Gigolo with his clean-cut looks and Armani-designed suits. Nikki and Julian – and you can throw in Jon Voight´s Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy, among others – are characters of similar intent and intelligence. But the other characters and the films they´re in succeed (if they do) by gaining our sympathy; Nikki never comes close, despite what seems like some effort in the script.
But Mackenzie knows this, and frames his story as dark satire; instead of sympathizing with Nikki´s plight, we instead take relish in his comeuppance.
Acting is varied. Levieva and (especially) Heche are impressive, but Kutcher is a problem in the lead. Well-cast as a doltish jock or doofus (a “mimbo”, in Seinfeld terminology) on TV and feature comedy, he´s never convincing as the irresistible sex object here – especially since the role invites comparison to Gere in Gigolo. His forced-gravelly voice as a narrator – as if he prepared by smoking a pack of cigarettes just prior to recording – wears thin after the opening lines and continues to grate throughout.
The final shot (unrelated to the story except as a metaphor) is magnificent: a frog slowly digests a mouse in front of a near-static camera, occasionally stroking the tail, which hangs from its mouth. It´s a small touch, but one that affirms my admiration for the director, and pushes my mixed feelings on the film into a recommendation.
Also opening: Stínu neutečeš (IMDb), a Czech drama from debuting writer-director Lenka Kny. Screening in Czech.
And: Dvojka, a drama from director Jaroslav Fuit starring Kristýna Nováková, Jakub Wagner, and David Máj. Screening in Czech
Also: Le petit Nicolas (Little Nicolas; IMDb), a French Christmas comedy from Laurent Tirard (Moličre). Screening in French with Czech subtitles.