Ducks in Line
Amanda Peet is a survivor. She’s spunky and attractive, an inventive performer who’s always worth watching even in the weak movies she’s made. Indeed, she has yet to appear in a good movie. Still, she consistently buoys middling films (Something’s Gotta Give ), and memorably feisty even in dreck (Changing Lanes  or Whipped ). (Granted, there’s not one good thing to say about The Whole Ten Yards.) In her latest romantic comedy, costarring with boy-of-the-moment Ashton Kutcher, she’s yet again charming, just-edgy-enough, and appropriately seductive.
Still, her vehicle this time, A Lot Like Love, is bungling and predictable. Its initial anti-cliché rhythms bode almost well: funky girl Emily (Peet) and straight boy Oliver (Kutcher) meet less-than-cute on a plane (they use the bathroom for a brief, apparently wordless mile-high clubby tryst), part for years, reconnect and reevaluate themselves and their sex-buddy friendship more than once. Throughout these erratic meetings, their banter ranges from cryptic to slightly annoying, as they coyly (or childishly) hold back from making obvious declarations of love or self.
During one of several “let’s break down the meaning of our non-romance” chats, Emily wonders what it is about Oliver that seems remotely attractive. An overly straight sort, he’s her ostensible opposite, but he’s also warm and affectionate, completely ready to devote himself to her from jump. Too bad: following a brief glimpse at her dating habits (two boyfriends, neither memorable except as they leave her), you see that she tends to hook up with socially irresponsible and emotionally unavailable types. And so, as she gazes at Oliver as he describes his life plan (he wants to get his “ducks in line,” a phrasing she corrects), her expression softening. “What ducks are those?” she asks. Ah, the usual: “job, career, house, future.” He’s definitely not her type, and so she regards Oliver with a kind of sympathetic disdain: “You’ll be beating away chicks with a stick.”
Though he really likes her, Oliver accepts Emily’s terms, available to see her whenever she calls (every few years) but also intent on that life plan. He sells diapers on the internet, a vocation that makes Emily laugh but that ends up making lots of dot-com money for him and loyal, hardworking partner Jeeter (Kal Penn) (the timeframe here is mid-‘90s). Because the film is structured according to Emily and Oliver’s interactions, their separate lives appear only as non-plotty moments. Emily does have a couple of friends (Kathryn Hahn and Ali Larter) and Oliver siblings (Taryn Manning, Josh Stamberg), but they’re relegated to standard advice-giving and wry-commenting. The non-together scenes serve primarily to establish short-lived obstacles to their inevitable reunion(s). Oliver has a live-in girlfriend (Moon Bloodgood), Emily has a boyfriend she can’t forget (Gabriel Mann), Oliver has a job meltdown (coinciding with the dot-com bust, though the film does little in the way of examining this phenomenon), Emily has a fiancé (Jeremy Sisto). La-de-dah.
The disappointment of A Lot Like Love is not that it is yet another uninspired framing for the gloriously fearless Peet, though it is that (and, as a friend has asked, there will come a time when she must be or seem responsible for the choices she’s made). The disappointment is that it begins with some sense of challenge to the plebian rhythms of romantic comedy, but then collapses so utterly onto the sword of generic demands. Emily and Oliver are not meant for one another. This much is clear, even though they are the stars of the film. She’s a regular worker girl who wants to be an artist (eventually, she becomes a photographer, in part, the movie submits, because Oliver leaves her his camera) following one overnight visit). He’s a visionary and entrepreneur who learns to roll with punches, that is, according to the movie, to fail (briefly) and come back. (Kutcher, by the way, appears to be making a lucrative habit of this role (see also: this year’s Guess Who, 2003’s My Boss’s Daughter and Just Married.)
While Oliver’s trajectory is vaguely noble within the lackadaisical shape of this story, Emily capitulates to generic expectations—good: she develops responsibility, tolerance; less good: a desire for her guardian angel Ollie. This even though she (and you) wouldn’t imagine this for her during the film’s first hour. She falls victim to the genre’s standard issue truth: as independent and quirky as she starts off, she’s only waiting to be swept off her feet by an unemployed pretty boy who appreciates her arty, time-slowing photography. (Perhaps the manipulation of shutter speed is her way of controlling the ostensible speediness of her bad choices.) All this makes A Lot Like Love a double drat in Peet’s continuing saga. Not only must she survive her costar’s irrepressible Ashton-ness, but as well a plot that fails her and doesn’t come back. Any movie that engineers a comic hijinksy highlight around its heroine smacking herself into a glass door is not thinking too far beyond surfaces.