In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.
Time now for a trip into the depository of dimly remembered Hollywood vanity projects, where the self-produced flops go when they don’t bomb spectacularly enough to become notorious. This is where you’ll find Spread, the eerily self-critical Ashton Kutcher vehicle that put the hunk star in the role of a homeless L.A. gigolo who beds rich, older women. The character, Nikki—nonstandard spelling presumably self-appellated—looks like the very ideal of late ’00s pretty-boy-hood (keffiyeh scarf, mussed hair, skinny suspenders), and he speaks in a low purr that makes it sounds like he’s doing the audience a favor by narrating the movie. In voice-over, he says things like, “Some men remember breast-feeding. I do not. I do remember seeing my mother in the shower once. She had a giant mound of pubic hair that caused me an aversion to all things untrimmed.” The signature image of Spread, featured on the poster, is of Nikki floating comfortably in the shallow end of a Hollywood Hills pool.
Nobody much remembers Spread, which was released in 2009 to about a hundred American theaters, including what was then the dingiest multiplex in the Chicago Loop. I know this, because I was one of the dozen or so people who went to see it on opening night. Judging from the movie’s box-office totals, the audiences didn’t get much bigger than ours: just me, a friend who also wrote about movies, and a group in flannel pajama pants who’d come straight from one of the downtown dorms. I can’t help but wonder whether my own enthusiasm for the film had something to do with projecting differing expectations, or of wanting different things. (Regular readers have probably figured out that I have a thing for protagonists who come across as shallow doofuses or creeps.) Because this movie that few people liked and barely anyone remembers is smarter and more hopeless than it has any business being. Perhaps that’s easier to see now that its star is no longer considered annoyingly famous.
Spread came out at as Kutcher’s celebrity was hitting its peak. He was married to Demi Moore then, and in light of their age difference and the philandering that became tabloid fodder as their marriage fell apart, the movie now seems like an unflattering self-portrait. What got me in the theater, though, wasn’t Kutcher, but David Mackenzie, his handpicked Scottish director. Before 2014’s Starred Up—an unvarnished behind-bars drama with Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O’Connell as a long-estranged father and son who end up in the same prison—Mackenzie seemed doomed to never get his due, even if his second feature, Young Adam, did achieve some minor notoriety in the States on account of its NC-17 rating. A lot of his movies focus on pathological sexual behavior or unsettling relationship power dynamics, which are both present and accounted for in Spread. It begins with Nikki getting fortysomething lawyer Samantha (Anne Heche) to take him home, kicking off what one has to presume is the latest in a very long string of sugar-mama relationships.
He fucks her in montages of quasi-raunchy sex and in exchange gets to spend his days hanging out in her glass-and-concrete house, which used to belong to Peter Bogdanovich; drive her Mercedes; and lounge by the pool while the grocery boys who could easily take his place make deliveries. Spread doesn’t directly deal with the film industry, preferring the aura of runoff glitz that drifts from Hollywood like smog. Written by Jason Hall—who’d go on to pen American Sniper but was then a jobbing pretty-boy actor best known for a small role on Buffy The Vampire Slayer—the film pictures L.A. as a place of exploiters and beautiful faces eager to be exploited (including Nikki’s small circle of friends), existing in a cycle of self-imposed vacuousness. There’s a morality play undertone, with Nikki getting his comeuppance in the form of Heather (Margarita Levieva), a waitress who only dates rich men. Ultimately, it’s the story of a handsome grifter who doesn’t have much going on inside and how he’s confronted with his emptiness, coming to terms with it as his lot in life. It ends with the credits rolling over a close-up of a pet toad digesting a mouse. It’s a comedy—ostensibly, at least.
Working with Steve Poster, Richard Kelly’s cinematographer, Mackenzie directs much of the movie in oners, with scenes playing out in unbroken shots that can run a minute or even a minute and a half, with a few hitting the four-minute mark. (Poring over original reviews of the film, including the A.V. Club’s own, I find zero mentions of this essential aspect of the movie.) Perhaps it never quite reconciles its clichés and hokier notes (see: the forgotten indie-rock also-rans crammed into the soundtrack) with the elegance of its direction. Mackenzie’s sense of staging plays up all things Hollywood movies generally try to hide, be it the actual layout of a shooting location or the height differences between lead actors. The open architecture and glass surfaces of Samantha’s cantilevered house—which was actually the home of fashion designer Randolph Duke—and Kutcher’s 6-feet-2-inch frame are continually being played off of.
Perhaps it’s inevitable, given Mackenzie’s preference for directing the movie’s more complicated scenes in single takes, which make it harder to cheat distances or have actors hop up on apple boxes. It makes you think, though, how much conventional Hollywood continuity and visual style relies on the illusion of everybody being the same height. Pointedly, the only times in Spread when Nikki talks to women at eye level is when he’s on the prowl in an early nightclub scene, either stooping forward or walking a few steps ahead to land farther down a staircase. Elsewhere, Mackenzie either lets him tower over the rest of the cast or pointedly shrinks him in perspective. That might seem like no big thing (no wordplay intended), but it speaks to the way his direction ends up acting out a story of its own.
At one point, Samantha walks in on Nikki getting a blowjob from a girl in a football helmet—a raunchy joke that transforms into a compressed one-act drama, as the camera moves up and down through the glass house, linking setup, aftermath, and conclusion into a single minutes-long shot. There’s nothing novel about Spread’s take on vapid materialism and sunny L.A. smarm, but its artful classicism creates more of a sense of insight into how its characters think and behave than most movies with more nominally fleshed-out relationships ever do. And, in playing a pathetic lothario whose eye-and-arm-candy value is rapidly dwindling, Kutcher gives what’s easily the best and most authentic performance of his career.
Next guest: The one and only Howard Hawks tried his hand at a mega-budgeted Cinemascope epic with Land Of The Pharaohs.