Amanda Peet. Ashton Kutcher. Romantic comedy. Who'd have thought it could work? And yet A Lot Like Love is an entertainment success, a triple threat of fresh writing, inspired directing, and, yes, good acting. Fortified with a healthy dose of intelligence, it manages to leap clear across an entire field of pitfalls, including the no-longer-quite-so-glaring staleness of its genre. In fact, the thing grips like a Rottweiler: It takes you by the neck and, nearly two hours later, remembers to let you go.
A Lot Like Love is being marketed as a friendship-romance movie. However, Emily and Oliver, played by Peet and Kutcher, don't begin as friends: They begin in an airplane bathroom, having anonymous sex, after the rapacious alternachick jumps Oliver's lanky, befuddled bones. At the baggage claim, she doesn't want to talk, but since he's a guy who's interested in other people and in knowing the names of his sexual partners, he does. Oliver guides Emily into a conversation on the subway, and when he later spots her on the Upper East Side (yeah, just go with it), they spend half the day together. Then . . . nothing for three years.
When next they meet, it's New Year's Eve in Los Angeles, where both of them live. Emily's boyfriend has departed, and she needs a date for the evening, so she calls Oliver's parents to find out whether he's wealthy and married yet. That's Oliver's "plan," and three years in, he seems to be on his way. But that news doesn't emerge until they've been to dinner, done their time at a glitzy party, and midnight-kissed. Right before she passes out on his toilet, he tells her: Tomorrow he moves to San Francisco to launch a dot-com.
That dinner scene, by the way, is one of the film's triumphs. Before they enter the restaurant, Oliver asks Emily about her breakup, but she won't talk. So he pledges silence -- "You aren't getting boo" -- and they pass the meal in hilarious pantomime, challenging each other in increasingly alarming ways to break it. They stare, spit, and crawl under the table. She feigns choking, in an alarming extended paroxysm, turning crimson and then blue in the face. He just sips his water. After she's been dead for at least half a minute, she caves, and he cracks a big smile: "I have a deaf brother. I can go for days without talking." It's perfect.
Two years later, it's Oliver's turn to break up. He appears at Emily's door, heart in his hand, and they take a drive into the desert. It gets better from there.
A Lot Like Love is a romantic fantasy, contriving scene after scene of romantic collisions way too good to be true, just as it delays the inevitable union of its protagonists with unconvincing plot devices so as to tighten the tension. Yet it's smart enough to get away with it. The Emily-Oliver banter is witty, even deft. Writer Colin Patrick Lynch creates precise, observed moments of humorous interaction, while Nigel Cole directs with a fresh, almost innocent camera. Finally, there's this: Ashton Kutcher is a good comedic actor. And at least in this movie, irresistible. His face is so open and so sweet that you can't help but want him to win. Whatever it is he's after, you want him to get it.
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