There’s always a problem in romantic comedies: how do you keep them apart?
— Nigel Cole, commentary, A Lot Like Love
“I would never have a character smoke. One, it’s terribly bad for you and you shouldn’t encourage people to smoke… And it’s almost impossible to get an actor to smoke at the same time in every scene.” Director Nigel Cole’s watching Amanda Peet as she smokes on a train platform in A Lot Like Love. it’s the slightly askew start of the relationship between her character, Emily, and Oliver (Ashton Kutcher). They’ve just met, had sex on a plane, and now she’s trying to get rid of him. She’s a funky girl, he’s awkwardly straight. He’s enamored, she’s not. And, as Cole points out, she puts out her cigarette twice in this scene.
For his “first Hollywood movie,” Cole (whose previous, British-made, films are Calendar Girls and Saving Grace), Cole confesses that he smoked a lot, but only because the stress was tremendous. Recalling these heady, hectic “mad dream” days, he and his commentary trackmates, producers Armyan Bernstein and Kevin Messick, understandably focus on the phenomenon of Ashton. Watching him on a New York street, Messick says, “This was the first day we realized the impact of paparazzi and Ashton. The whole other side of the street, which you can’t see, here must have been 40, 50 photographers within 10 minutes.” Thank goodness he was also a nice guy, quick to praise Peet’s performance, easygoing on the set, apparently quite pleasant as he handles the mania.
A Lot Like Love tries to make use of its stars’ appeals, structuring a regular romantic comedy out of charmingly imperfect, well-performed moments. The plot, sadly, turns increasingly formulaic, with confidantes and misread situations and lack of communication steering the lovers wrong repeatedly and less and less convincingly, until the finale just feels flaccid, all out of energy. Oliver and Emily part following that train stand inelegance, then meet intermittently, reevaluating themselves and their sex-buddy friendship more than once. Throughout these erratic meetings, their banter ranges from cryptic to slightly annoying, as they 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), 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.”
As Cole and Messick (who do most of the chatting for the commentary track), observe, the film does best when the characters actually stop talking. During one official date, Ollie and Emily go to a Chinese restaurant and, Messick says, experience “one of the genius ideas of Nigel, where we shot a lot of improv with Ashton and Amanda.” Cole adds that Peet and Kutcher “used all of the excitement they had about working with each other, to inspire them.” They’re sweet and unaffected, and Peet pretends to choke. All good fun.
And then, as Cole notes, comes the pressure to move the plot along, to cut the sweet, seemingly irrelevant material and include the routine scenes. Sigh. (Though, the DVD’s inclusion of a short blooper reel, four deleted scenes, and a music video, “Brighter Than Sunshine,” by Aqualung, doesn’t suggest that the filmmakers actually shot better material than shows up in the film, only that they had some fine times on set.) So, you learn that Oliver not only sells diapers on the internet, but becomes a mid-’90s dotcom entrepreneur, due to plotty scenes showing him with partner Jeeter (Kal Penn).
Emily also has a couple of friends (Kathryn Hahn and Ali Larter) and Oliver siblings (Taryn Manning, Josh Stamberg), but they’re relegated to the usual advice-giving and wry-commenting. The non-couple scenes serve primarily to establish short-lived obstacles to their inevitable reunions. 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 picks p a fiancé (Jeremy Sisto).
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 who learns to roll with punches, which makes him ideal for Emily, in need of a sensible boy.
While Oliver’s trajectory is vaguely noble within this plot’s lackadaisical shape, Emily falls victim to generic strictures. As independent, vivacious, and quirky as she might be, she has to be swept off her feet by an unemployed pretty boy who appreciates her arty, time-slowing photography. Any movie that engineers a comic hijinksy climax around Amanda Peet smacking into a glass door is not thinking beyond surfaces.