David Mackenzie, whose haunting 2003 mystery Young Adam promised so much, has gone to La-La land to tell the story of a young(ish) hustler in Spread.
Ashton Kutcher plays Nikki, a lithe, good-looking gigolo whose preening self-regard is almost as irksome as the skinny black braces he wears the whole time.
Explaining his seduction routines in bored voiceover, Nikki describes himself as "homeless, carless and completely unreliable", but when he can stay rent-free at a fabulous house overlooking the Hollywood Hills in return for regular al fresco sex with its owner, fortysomething attorney Samantha (Anne Heche), he's not unduly bothered by his vagrant status.
The screenwriters Jason Hall and Paul Kolsby are perhaps aiming to recreate the spirit of Richard Gere in American Gigolo, or even Warren Beatty in Shampoo, from an era when transactional sex was a lifestyle choice, like surfing, or gardening. For a while its jauntily cynical tone exerts a repulsive fascination, even if it's pretty coy about sex's usual concomitant, drugs.
Once it sniffs a moral in the offing, however, Spread starts to go soft. Nikki flirts with a hot-eyed young waitress, Heather (Margarita Levieva, siren of last year's great Adventureland), and then falls hard for her, only to discover that she's actually a more ruthless operator than he is. With astonishing suddenness the boy wonder finds that he's overdrawn on his modest charm – "You're six inches and a pretty face," Samantha tells him candidly – and that the journey from clubland cynosure to tired "man-whore" is shorter than he imagined. This might have been affecting if we could believe that Nikki had a heart, but his obsession with Heather seems a merely narcissistic yearning – the hunter captured by the game. When he isn't half-naked Kutcher wears clothes so horrible (those braces have the power to sicken) that you wish he'd go back to being half-naked. He's not a bad actor, in a lazy, self-conscious sort of way, but he's being propelled through a plot that has no guile, no subtlety, nothing at all, in fact, beyond a barely understood desire to punish him.