Hollywood has a long history of showing us charming "golddiggers" in film, whether they're cute Depression-era heroines trying to get a free meal, a trio of Fifties fashion models scheming to land rich husbands, or soft-pedaled prostitutes of either gender. In Spread, the golddigger is a young man, much like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy if he'd succeeded in his original plans, but unfortunately not debonair or complex enough to overcome the feeling that the movie is more sordid than sweet or sharply comic.
Nikki (Ashton Kutcher) -- and what guy with that name spells it that way? -- wants to live a life of luxury with as little effort as possible. He succeeds nicely by picking up rich woman and sponging off them for as long as he can. He has no car, no home and no savings, even though at least one woman buys him expensive clothes and gifts. Perhaps he just doesn't have a knack for acquiring expensive baubles like Marilyn Monroe's character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or more to the point, he has no long-term ambitions.
His latest gigolo gig is with wealthy lawyer Samantha (Anne Heche), who is staring 40 in the face and therefore tolerates a fair amount of bad behavior from the boytoy she has few illusions about. He can't resist picking up any woman in sight, just for fun. After meeting Heather (Margarita Levieva), a waitress who is oddly standoffish to his charms, Nikki starts yearning for something different.
Unfortunately, as Samantha tells Nikki right to his face, Kutcher's character has few endearments apart from his mere good looks. I'd say I feel too old to appreciate Kutcher physically but apparently that hasn't stopped other women my age, at least in the movie. At any rate, Nikki is pretty dull company -- his witticisms peak at "No boots in the bed" -- although he's kind to women working in strip clubs and drunk chicks who shouldn't drive.
The one character with any complexity is Samantha, due primarily to Heche's performance. We tend to hear more about Heche's personal life than her acting career even now, but she did an excellent job portraying an insecure woman who feels like she can no longer attract the attractive. Levieva, whom I liked as Lisa P. in Adventureland, brings a little verve to a role about as well-drawn as Elaine in The Graduate.
Spread seems to harbor ambitions of being a contemporary rework of The Graduate. Nikki is a drifter like Benjamin, letting older women seduce him while not worrying much about his future. And he's surrounded by characters who are as selfish as he is -- there's even an implication that Los Angeles has helped make him what he is, that he's a victim of his surroundings. Heather may be his Elaine, but Nikki never shows any level of emotion equal to the frustration and determination of Dustin Hoffman's memorable dropout.
The ads for Spread promote the film as a "sex comedy" but it only delivers on the first part. The movie is unafraid to show straightforward sex scenes, and they're not quite run-of-the-mill, which is a pleasant change. In fact, most are geared toward the female partner's pleasure, which seems uncommon in mainstream film. But the film leans more toward melodrama than comedy, especially in the second half, although possibly I was misinterpreting the tone. Was Heche's cosmetic surgery supposed to be funny, and not sad? Even Nikki's early voiceovers, which provide advice about how to get a woman into bed, were more pitiful than laugh-out-loud funny.
There are no sympathetic characters in Spread, and the movie isn't afraid to show us its characters' bad sides. This would work well in a dark comedy, where it doesn't matter that we don't care about Nikki -- he could be more of a charming and carefree cad and less of an overgrown puppy. Unfortunately, the indie-romance angle that takes over the latter part of the film requires empathy and interest in the people involved; without these qualities, the ending has no resonance. Spread lives up to its title; it's a fake butter substitute of a movie, delivering only an oily imitation of what it promises.