As far as movie reviews are concerned, it's not the really bad or really good movies that are tough to write about, it's the the ones that are just okay, that don't really provide the writer with enough to critique in a five-paragraph review. Usually, these films resulting in hours of procrastinating and debate in front of a depressingly blank screen. Recently, I've run into a few of these kinds of movies, and while I started the week focused on reviews, putting one up on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, on Wednesday I hit a wall. Having unsuccessfully attempted to trudge my way through a different title for a couple of days, I threw on Spread just to get it going while I was hitting the sack and ended up watching the entire movie. At first, there a lot of elements stacked against the film: a dull-sounding story, a smarmy opening, and yet another attempt by star Ashton Kutcher to legitimize himself as a dramatic actor, but the film overcomes each of these obstacles to become not a favorite but definitely the kind of movie I enjoy, a leisurely-paced film that's unafraid to change gears and avoid an easy resolution.
Kutcher plays Nikki, an LA drifter -- or perhaps grifter -- looking for a place to stay. In addition to being homeless, Nikki has no car, no money and no job. To survive, he picks up rich women and subtly inserts himself into their lives, gaining their trust until he can use them for his own benefit. One of the first things that I liked about Spread is that the film wastes no time with backtracking or flashbacks; right off the bat, we see Nikki enter a club, pass by several other women who would be happy to enjoy his company, and roll out his calculated system on a rich lawyer named Samantha (Anne Heche). Samantha detects the scam on some level, and tries to refuse, but when Nikki makes a move, she goes for it, and it isn't long before he's staying at Samantha's $5 million dollar house, using her credit card to buy himself groceries to eat while lying by the pool, throwing parties while she's away and having the maid clean it up. His rent is the sex he has with Samantha, and she silently accepts.
Reading the DVD box copy, I wasn't particularly thrilled by the way the story sounds, but having seen the movie, my opinion did a 180 degree turn. Frankly, I think this material alone is probably enough for a movie, particularly the idea that Nikki is homeless and that failure to slide into another one of his manipulative sexual relationships with a total stranger might mean he ends up sleeping on the street. Sure, Nikki never actually ends up having to sleep on any park benches (or at least we don't see it), but when we see him leaving a house during the movie's opening credits-slash-voice-over-monologue, it's fascinating to consider that it isn't his house, and within less than 24 hours, he's managed to worm his way into a new living situation with nothing but his well-trained instincts.
After a few weeks of lounging about, Nikki hits up a diner and sets his eyes on a pretty waitress named Heather (Margarita Levieva), who reacts poorly to his attempts to get her number. When Nikki starts pursuing her and she eventually gives him a little leeway, my enthusiasm took a dip -- is this going to be another dull story about true love? The answer is more complicated than it seems. Yes, the attraction between Nikki and Heather is developed and genuine, but Heather is playing the same game as he is, picking up strangers and using them to get ahead in the world. Maybe it doesn't read as well as it plays, but the movie has Levieva's low-key amusement to grease the gears, which reminded me of Scarlett Johansson's performance in Ghost World. It's also interesting how smoothly and readily the movie is willing to switch focus from Samantha to Heather, which other movies might have been afraid to do.
At first, Kutcher appears to being doing a voice, which is mighty distracting and even vaguely amusing, but as the movie progresses his acting evens out. It's not an Oscar-caliber performance by any means, but it's certainly better than the long-standing report that he was fired from a Cameron Crowe production would have you believe. Kutcher is careful not to overact, which is probably the wisest move he makes, and he never goes particularly goofy or allows the audience to think he's relying on old tricks to pull off the role. Heche is even better, creating a believable character out of less than what Kutcher has to go on, since Heche's character is often away and even then many of her scenes are sex scenes rather than character material. Sebastian Stan and Rachel Blanchard are good in the brief but key roles as Nikki's best friend and ex-girlfriend (Blanchard only has the one scene), and once again, Levieva is a real find destined for bigger and better roles.
Admittedly, the screenplay by Jason Dean Hall has more than a handful of speedbumps threatening to derail it. As with most movies, misunderstandings and mistakes start to rack up, most of which occur almost by chance and feel more like machinations of the movie than things that might happen in real life. There are several contrivances during the movie's third act that, while not necessarily playing false, don't flow as well with the characters and the story as the rest of the film's developments. Thankfully, when it comes time to resolve things, Spread doesn't pull its final punch, arriving at a satisfying resolution that finishes things off nicely. I was quite surprised by how much I liked Spread; even viewers who aren't fans of Ashton Kutcher should give it a look if they aren't taken aback by the steamy subject material.
Spread comes with a mildly striking front cover, featuring some slightly amped up colors and a slick use of empty space, but something about the soft focus and font choices on the back cover makes it look like an infomercial from the 1980's or 1990's. Maybe I'm just crazy. Inside an Eco-Box case, an otherwise artless disc with black painted type can be found, and the whole thing is slid inside a cardboard sleeve with identical artwork.
The Video and Audio
Spread gets a glossy 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation courtesy of Anchor Bay that is the digital equivalent of the almost supernaturally crystal-clear-looking Hollywood pool in the back of Samantha's $5 million home. The colors pop, black levels are deep, and there's plenty of fine detail.
Dolby Digital 5.1 English audio is the same story, with crisp dialogue and nice directional and surround effects (including quite a few helicopters), which should all be expected of a reasonably well-budgeted, 2009 movie. I also really liked the use of songs in Spread, and the music is faithfully rendered on all fronts. It won't be a demo disc for your speaker system, but you will feel like you're in a busy city. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Under the Special Features menu, there are three featurettes, entitled "Living the Dream: The Making of Spread" (16:10), "Behind the Scenes With Ashton Kutcher" (5:45) and "The World According to Nikki" (3:53). All three of them are pretty run-of-the-mill as far as modern behind-the-scenes DVD material goes (their watchability/interest factors decreasing with length), but they're not terrible or overly clip-saturated.
Hiding in the Set Up menu but noted on the packaging is a feature-length audio commentary by star/producer Ashton Kutcher and actors Anne Heche and Margarita Levieva. Even though she's quiet, Levieva is the commentary's savior; it's not that Kutcher and Heche are bad commentators (although Heche leaves more than halfway through to tend to her baby), but they don't seem to have any experience recording one, and aren't entirely sure what to discuss. Whenever it looks like a bout of silence is going to derail the proceedings, Levieva will pipe up with an amusing comment that gets everyone going again. Of course, her efforts only improve the commentary as entertainment; as far as detailed production information goes, the track is still a bit lacking. Since these three are all actors, most of the comments cover character motivation and performance decisions rather than any of the technical aspects of the movie or even thematic choices. It's too bad director Mackenzie couldn't have participated as well, especially given Heche's premature departure.
The film's wildly misleading original theatrical trailer, which cuts out all of the narcissism, fighting and distrust to make the movie look like a fairly charming romantic comedy, and the trailer for Sunshine Cleaning are also accessible under Special Features.
Spread doesn't have the world's best special feature package, and it's possible that others won't be able to see past the movie's flaws the way I did. For these reasons, I'm only going to recommend a rental of the movie, but consider it strongly encouraged: the film is a solid surprise, especially from Kutcher.
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