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-as-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 friendship-romance movie, the conflict apparently around whether to risk an established friendship for romance. That, however, is not what happens. 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 -- talking "ruins it," in one of the film's less fortunate tropes -- 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. Three years earlier, he'd scribbled their number on a bar bill so Emily could call, six years hence, to learn that he was wealthy and married, with the requisite house and wife. That's Oliver's "plan," the thing he thinks he has to do, 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 break-up, 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 extended, alarming paroxysm, turning crimson and then blue in the face, but he just idles, sipping 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, when his girlfriend can no longer abide his long hours at the office, where he hawks Huggies for DiaperRush.com. (Another of the film's sweet successes is the way it treats Oliver's crash-and-burn career, never making too big a deal of it, merely observing as he disappears into the Internet frenzy and reemerges a few years later, chastened and shell-shocked.) Oliver 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. What's so enjoyable about this movie is its moment-to-moment sensibility. For example, the deaf brother (Herschel Bleefeld) isn't a blurred charity case; he's suddenly just there, being a brother, and Kutcher signs as if he's been doing it forever. And the Emily-Oliver banter is witty, even deft, with constant reminders of real-life hit-or-miss. Writer Colin Patrick Lynch creates precise, observed moments of humorous interaction, while Nigel Cole directs with a fresh, almost innocent camera. After the plane lands, Cole shoots New York from the underbelly of a bridge; later, there's a killer tableau at the New Year's Eve party, where Emily's friends shield her from the vision of her ex with another woman -- beneath the skeleton of a humongous dinosaur.
Finally, there's this: Ashton Kutcher is a good comedic actor. For one thing, whose face can register more precise gradations of befuddlement? The dance done by his forehead upon returning to his seat in the plane is a many-splendored thing: "Did that just happen?" is followed quickly by "That totally just happened!" and then "Did I want that to happen?" by "I totally wanted that to happen!" All of which is capped by a deeply puzzled "What happens now?" Kutcher is also, 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.