If in fact it were true that modern life doesn't provide the obstacles that make for decent barriers to romance, then finding love would be as glitch-free as a smooth slide into bitterness. But the disappearance of traditional obstacles has only led to a rise in creative barricading. We have DIY love problems now, and Nigel Cole's "A Lot Like Love," written by Colin Patrick Lynch, has the decency to acknowledge them and deem them sufficient.
Emily (Amanda Peet) and Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) first cross paths at the airport just before flying from L.A. to New York "seven years ago." It seems longer ago than that: Amanda is a grunge girl in combat boots with a weakness for guitarists, Oliver is a flop-haired doofus who dreams of starting a dot-com diaper delivery business. For twentysomethings of the era -- or for her, anyway -- their aesthetic differences are deal-breakers. Despite a tryst at 30,000 feet and a fun-filled day together in Manhattan, she more or less writes him off. Oliver, though more confident in his interest in Emily, has a five-year plan (you know the type) that doesn't include having a girlfriend until all his "ducks" are "in a row." They part ways, half-jokingly agreeing to settle their bet over whether Oliver's life will have gone exactly according to plan in seven years.
From there, the movie brings them together sporadically, always on the cusp or aftermath of some major change. Emily calls Oliver three years later, after getting dumped by her slickster boyfriend, and they spend New Year's Eve together, but Oliver leaves for San Francisco the next day. Oliver shows up on Emily's doorstep a few years after that having been dumped by his shallow girlfriend, but his company is starting to take off, and so on. The story unfurls in short bursts erupting years and miles apart, so the time Oliver and Emily spend apart -- that is, most of the time -- gets reduced to the merest symbolic nutshells. Minor but pivotal characters, such as Emily's ex, Peter (Gabriel Mann), Oliver's ex, Bridget (Moon Bloodgood), and Emily's next, Ben (Jeremy Sisto), whiz past like dodged bullets. (When Emily tells Oliver that she's met someone, I'd forgotten all about the guy she met in a record store a few scenes earlier.)
Not that this wouldn't be a tricky story to assemble -- but the script wastes valuable time on such creaky, "character development" tangents as Oliver's deaf brother (he even looks like the brother from "Four Weddings and Funeral") and Emily's dead mother -- graveside moonings and filial tete-a-tetes could have been easily tossed aside to make room for more on Oliver and Emily's alternate love lives, which might have given the romance some kick. Or maybe not so easily. The deaf brother and dead mom devices do smack of studio script notes.
Despite a title that sounds a lot like everything that's bland and forgettable about romantic comedies, "A Lot Like Love" bucks the genre considerably, never straining itself or trumping up the drama with far-fetched misunderstandings. Instead of forced comedy -- you'll be gratified to learn that nobody does the "butter churn" or "the robot" at any point throughout the film (dolce miracolo!) -- the movie goes for bittersweet romance in the vein of "Manhattan." If the script isn't as well-structured as it could be, the dialogue is refreshingly natural. Kutcher is surprisingly well cast as the awkward, somewhat dorky Oliver, and Peet is charming and charismatic without being cloying or artificial. Together they drum up some believable, low-key chemistry and an easy, funny rapport that is pleasant, if not transcendent, to watch. Emily's character, in particular, visibly matures over the course of the film, and watching her, you believe that it would take her seven years to realize that what she feels for Oliver is love. Despite their sporadic attempts to get together, they're realistically passive when it comes to grand gestures or big decisions.
Beautifully shot by John de Borman and designed by Tom Meyer, "A Lot Like Love" never veers into visual fantasy and avoids defining its characters (excessively) by their sofas. Los Angeles, in particular, looks lovely and real, and it's quietly thrilling to watch Emily and Oliver haunt specific, identifiable corners of the city and environs. The dialogue and some of the situations (if not the general thrust of the story) tend toward contrivance at times, but despite its flaws, "A Lot Like Love" is a winning, unassuming little movie that, despite an obviously lush budget, avoids many of the pitfalls of the traditional big-budget romantic comedy.
'A Lot Like Love'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, nudity and language
Times guidelines: Pretty mild -- and the nudity is artistic, mostly
A Touchstone Pictures release. Director Nigel Cole. Producer Armyan Bernstein and Kevin Messick. Screenplay by Colin Patrick Lynch. Director of photography John de Borman. Editor Susan Littenberg. Music Alex Wurman. Production designer Tom Meyer. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
In general release.