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September 2011

Spread

cast: Ashton Kutcher, Anne Heche, Eric Balfour, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Ashley Johnson

director: David Mackenzie

97 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum blu-ray region B

RATING: 4/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont




Toy Boy
Spread

Watching this film, I was reminded of the scene in Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), where the fast-talking protagonist Harry Lockhart played by Robert Downey Jr looks around him at all the beautiful aspiring actresses desperate to be noticed and launches into a misogynistic rant about the Hollywood fringe: "I mean, it's literally like someone took America by the East Coast and 'shook' it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on," he growls before his female companion singles him out for collective ridicule.

The scene is beautifully balanced as while it manages to tap into the widespread belief that there's something desperately wrong and false about Hollywood, the scene's use of beautiful aspiring actresses desperate to be noticed also acknowledges that while Hollywood is both false and ugly, it is also an environment in which thousands of people choose to live. David Mackenzie's Spread (aka: Toy Boy) is a film that tries to make sense of the duality of Hollywood by telling the story of a Hollywood bottom-feeder. However, try as it might, Spread is simply not smart enough to gain purchase on the culture it professes to critique.

Nikki (Ashton Kutcher) is a gigolo, a well-groomed and cynical pretty boy who makes a living by attaching himself to wealthy older women. We first encounter Nikki as he enters a nightclub smiling at everyone and informing us in voiceover that he is on the hunt for a particular kind of wealthy older female, a wealthy older female very much like Samantha (Anne Heche). Drawing on a set of rules built up over the years, Nikki slowly wins Samantha's trust; an orgasm here, a display of emotional vulnerability there all topped off with a home-cooked meal that does not turn out right but still makes it look as though he cares.

Before long, Samantha is living with Nikki and showering him with gifts. When Samantha goes out of town, Nikki invites all of his friends round and spends the night shagging the giggle-some airheads he quite obviously prefers. When Samantha returns home a day early and catches Nikki, in flagrante, her first instinct is to throw him out of the house but she soon realises that (a) she actually likes Nikki and (b) she did not actually lay down any ground-rules for their relationship.

Spread desperately wants to be the film that casts a cynical eye over the realities of life on the fringes of Hollywood and the film is arguably at its best when it is doing precisely this. Though not as insightful or as witty as they probably should be, Nikki's observations on how the powerful use the powerless and how the powerless can turn the tables on the powerful are cynical but well observed. In fact, they are so cynical that Nikki never comes across as anything other than a manipulative and empty-headed arsehole. Which makes the film's second and third acts something of a problem.

As Nikki grows increasingly bored with the beautiful, rich, intelligent, and glamorous Samantha, he tries to seduce a waitress in a local diner. However, Heather (Margarita Levieva) proves incredibly resistant to Nikki's charms because she too makes her life by preying on older and wealthier people. Surprised by the fact that they both like each other, despite being fully aware of each other's fondness for duplicity and manipulation, Nikki and Heather wind up living together but the path of true love is rendered treacherous by Heather's secret. Spread's plot is effectively a variation on an old romantic comedy saw:

Step #1: Scumbag boy leads a scumbag life
Step #2: Scumbag boy meets non-scumbag girl
Step #3: Non-scumbag girl forces scumbag boy to re-evaluate his life
Step #4: Scumbag boy becomes non-scumbag boy in order to be with non-scumbag girl

While different films apply different values to the term 'scumbag' (scumbag boy can be depressed boy, criminal boy, and even gay boy), the basic idea remains the same: man meets woman and woman saves him. While the value assigned to 'non-scumbag' also varies from film to film, the most common manifestation of non-scumbag girl is that of the 'manic pixie dream girl' whose lust for life and capacity for outlandish behaviour melts our hero's heart and forces him to re-evaluate the decisions he has made in life. Think of Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot (1959), and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild (1986), for examples of this type of thing.

Spread's problem is that, while it is happy to use this sort of generic plot to provide its characters with broad dramatic arcs, the film also wants to avoid coming across as a romantic comedy. In order to do this, the film introduces a number of twists into the formula. For example, while scumbag boy is (by definition) a scumbag, romantic comedies generally try to soften the character's edge in order to (a) provide him with a degree of piratical charm and (b) provide a baseline for what the character will become once he re-evaluates his life.

Unfortunately, Jason Dean Hall's script for Spread never bothers to humanise Nikki and so he never comes across as anything other than an un-likeable arsehole and when the time comes for him to stop being an un-likeable arsehole, the character has nowhere to go. Also problematic is the fact that Heather's status as a non-scumbag is grounded in the fact that she is just as much a scumbag as Nikki. With no softer edges to their personalities and no 'hidden' characteristics to fall back on, both characters lack the sort of inner lives that might allow audiences to sympathise with them or understand why they are trying to change their lives. This problem is made even more acute by the fact that Nikki is presented as being old enough that his looks are starting to fade suggesting that his desire to be with Heather may have as much to do with having no place else to go as it does with being in love.

I suspect that these variations on the traditional romantic comedy theme are intentional and that, by breaking with generic tradition, the film is trying to make some wider point about the way in which we think our lives are going to follow these grand romantic arcs but, while Spread hints at this sort of deconstructive agenda, it ultimately fails to explore any of these themes meaning that the film comes across as broken rather than deconstructed.

Looking beyond the weakness of the script, Spread is an attractive enough film. David Mackenzie channels Michael Mann's L.A. to create a world full of vibrant colours and homes that are just as impossibly well manicured as the bodies that live in them. Mackenzie also does a good job of making the film look sexy but without its numerous sex scenes ever being particularly titillating. Clearly, this is a world of business, and sex and clothes are the currency. The film's pacing is also good and while the script struggled to hold my attention, Spread is never actively dull.

Performances vary as you might expect. Heche does sterling work with an underwritten part and her increasingly desperate attempts to hold Nikki's attention feature some wonderfully bleak moments. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Kutcher who never comes across as anything other than a dull-eyed pretty boy with all of the charisma of an unfortunate growth, while Levieva is hopelessly bland and confused in a part that should have allowed for a good deal of emotional complexity.

Despite being on blu-ray, Spread's only extras are a few short promotional interviews with the actors. Heche, as you might expect, comes across as intelligent and engaged while Kutcher looks intensely uncomfortable and edgy as he mumbles his way through a few vague platitudes about his character. While Spread does contain a good performance by Heche and a few good observations about the aspirational and exploitative nature of the Hollywood fringe, the film is ultimately lacking the wit and wisdom that might have made it truly memorable.



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