Spread (2009)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Anne Heche, Margarita Levieva
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Trailer

David Mackenzie's "Spread" is set up as a stinging indictment of amoral, self-serving Los Angeles culture, personified in the body-for-pleasure of a young male hustler. Ashton Kutcher plays Nikki, the homeless, jobless, ruthless boy toy who preys on the raging hormones of desperate women for his keep. But it's the movie that fatally falls under Nikki's manipulations, quickly losing its bite and pitting him as the sympathetic hero in a cold and unforgiving environment. Thus, the film essentially becomes a celebration of the shallow decadence it originally set out to attack as Kutcher's American gigolo achieves undeserved martyrdom.

Having reduced his manipulation of wealthy women down to a science, with exact methods of speaking, acting, showing emotion, and achieving orgasm, Nikki sets his sights on successful, 40-ish Samantha (Anne Heche), who requires little persuading to get him in bed. Through his tested formula, he earns her trust and the right to stay in her luxurious penthouse, where he throws wild parties while she is away on business. For Nikki, even when he scores, he always has to be on the lookout for his next conquest.

She happens to be Heather (Margarita Levieva), a coffee shop waitress he just can't see enough of. She is not as receptive to Nikki's charms as most of the women he has seduced, and the game changes as he finds himself being led by someone with possibly ulterior motives. It is later revealed that Heather is indeed a hustler just like him, manipulating rich men to make her way to the top. Without a shred of irony, Nikki is appalled by Heather's lifestyle, but he finds himself deeply attracted to her, even in love, but she shows no interest in changing for him. This leads him on a downward economic spiral when Samantha refuses to continue supporting him and Heather devotes herself to her current sugar daddy.

The most intriguing aspect of "Spread" is the casting of Ashton Kutcher, an actor known primarily for his aggressive narcissism and his high-profile marriage to older actress Demi Moore, in a role that critiques the very self-absorption he is associated with. Kutcher is effective in the first half of the movie, not because of his acting, but because in our minds he so perfectly embodies the shallow, opportunistic, pretty-boy stereotype that the film attempts to dissect. But he falls flat once his character acquires depth, emotion, and sincerity. His efforts to play straight seem forced and artificial. The irony is that his play at deception rings true. A role such as this demands an actor with more self awareness and a willingness to mock his own public persona. Unfortunately, Kutcher is unwilling (or unable) to make himself the object of the same judgmental lens through which he has "Punk'd" other celebrities (not surprising as he is also credited as a producer on this film). Both he and Mackenzie fail to see Nikki as anything but the hero, and so they constantly ask us to identify with him even at his most repellant.

Just as Nikki manipulates every woman he encounters (including a middle-aged cop), so the film paints women in general as uninteresting, masochistic losers. Even when Samantha and Heather reject Nikki's come-ons or play him at his own game, they lack empowerment because they are still not the primary subjects of our identification. Their motives are often unexplained (or downright inexplicable), which keeps us from fully relating to them or understanding their decisions. That they keep returning to Nikki in spite of his abuse reveals them to be ultimately pathetic and empty.

At the end of the film, Nikki achieves neither true happiness nor success, but he is given hope, which is more than can be said for the various women he deceives. The movie's final image of a frog eating a mouse is hilariously grotesque and pretentious, a disquieting metaphor for Nikki as both manipulator and victim. He is the frog prince who has set out to devour Los Angeles for his immediate pleasure, but he is also the puny mouse swallowed up by the ruthless city and its false promises. More than anything, however, this image also comes to symbolize the movie's total failure, as it demonstrates how Mackenzie and Kutcher have remained loyally on the side of the character they should have condemned. What was promised as a slick, cynical critique of contemporary amorality eventually falls back on convention, and instead of bringing Nikki his comeuppance, it only rewards him for being a man.

Anchor Bay Entertainment's DVD release of "Spread" presents the film in anamorphic 2.40:1 widescreen. While the picture is clean, the image does not seem quite as vibrant as it should be. There is an ever so slight faded look to the colors and black levels, and the picture is a bit soft. Nothing detrimental, but it is surprising for such a recent film.

The 5.1 Dolby Digital track does its job, conveying the music and dialogue with good clarity. The soundtrack features a good number of songs, all of which sound great and are never overwhelming. Directional pull is relatively limited by the nature of the film, but in general this is very good. English (SDH) and Spanish subtitles are offered.

As in the film itself, Ashton Kutcher seems to exhibit significant control over the DVD, considering how heavily pervasive he is in the special features. First up is an audio commentary track featuring Kutcher with co-stars Anne Heche and Margarita Levieva. It is an absolutely useless track, with the three mostly joking around and noting how awkward it is to watch the sex scenes. For all of his incessant droning, Kutcher manages to utter not a single interesting thing the entire time, and Heche actually leaves (apparently to take care of her child) about 20 minutes before the film ends.

Three very similar behind-the-scenes featurettes follow. "Living the Dream – The Making of Spread" (16 minutes), "Behind the Scenes with Ashton Kutcher" (six minutes), and "The World According to Nikki" (four minutes) all contain interviews with the cast and crew. These are mostly promotional and offer no real insight into the production, although Kutcher explicitly makes clear that he does not see a connection between his character and his own celebrity image, a telling revelation if there ever was one. A theatrical trailer rounds things out.

Ashton Kutcher's smug self-satisfaction is winning him no new fans, and "Spread" may be his most egotistical project yet. It should have been just the opposite, but the man is clearly too in love with himself to commit to such an unflattering role. Anchor Bay's DVD edition is competent, but it offers no great argument for seeing the film.