Ashton Kutcher's second romantic comedy of the spring is far more appealing than "Guess Who" -- and pairs him with Amanda Peet -- but it's also more difficult to market, featuring a nondescript premise and almost languid pace. Pic's happiest ending should be as a rental, although favorable word of mouth could yield some surprise box office bounty.

Ashton Kutcher’s second romantic comedy of the spring is far more appealing than “Guess Who” — and pairs him with a beguiling Amanda Peet — but it’s also more difficult to market, featuring a nondescript premise and almost languid pace. In essence, British director Nigel Cole has brought a breezy arthouse sensibility to this tale of fated love, which proves pleasant company but doesn’t offer a lot of flourishes to highlight in a 30-second TV spot. As such, pic’s happiest ending should be as a rental, although favorable word of mouth could yield some surprise box office bounty.

The movie’s structural conceit is intriguing but also episodic enough to be somewhat confining. Beginning “seven years ago,” we meet just-graduated Oliver (Kutcher) and Emily (Peet) when she impulsively inducts him into the mile-high club. The two spend an afternoon together, but his interest in extending the relationship is cut short when Emily warns him that to pursue things further would “ruin it.”

Three years later he’s pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams when Emily rings him up in search of a New Year’s Eve date after being dumped by a boyfriend. The relationship thus continues to unfold in one- or two-year intervals, each time finding them at different places in their lives, counting down to a present that one needn’t have seen “When Harry Met Sally” to anticipate.

Yet as familiar as that sounds and mostly feels, Cole (“Calendar Girls”) milks considerable charm and unforced laughs from his leads, whose natural performances and easy rapport make for a hard-to-resist combination. “You and I will never become a thing,” a punked-out Emily tells Oliver after their first tryst, and if it’s pretty obvious that’s untrue, it’s still rather fun watching them make it so.

It would help, no doubt, if the well-cast supporting players registered more strongly, but at its core this is a two-character piece, and Colin Patrick Lynch’s screenplay labors a bit to keep the two apart, if only to keep putting them back together. That includes encounters in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Oliver’s stint launching a dot-com in San Francisco, the underlying thread being whether he can incorporate love into his carefully plotted ambitions.

Nevertheless, there’s a gentle quality to the film that’s too rare these days — a tone aided immeasurably by Alex Wurman’s score and a fine song soundtrack. Emily and Oliver’s impromptu rendition of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” in fact, yields one of the movie’s brighter moments — one of two occasions in which Kutcher demonstrates that he should stick to his day job.

Granted, “A Lot Like Love” is a lot like any number of romantic comedies, but there should always be room for another good one, even if it follows a bassackward and well-beaten path from “Seven years ago” to “Happily ever after.”

A Lot Like Love

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures and Beacon Pictures presentation of a Beacon production in association with Kevin Messick Prods. Produced by Armyan Bernstein, Messick. Executive producers, Charlie Lyons, Zanne Devine, Suzann Ellis. Co-producer, Lisa Bruce. Directed by Nigel Cole. Screenplay, Colin Patrick Lynch.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), John de Borman; editor, Susan Littenberg; music, Alex Wurman; music supervisors, Laura Z. Wasserman, Diane Stata; production designer, Tom Meyer; art director, Denise Hudson; set decorator, Meg Everist; costume designer, Alix Friedberg; sound (Dolby Digital SDDS DTS), Steve Nelson; supervising sound editors, Kelly Cabral, Paul Timothy Carden; assistant director, Betsy Magruder; casting, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at Bruin Theater, Los Angeles, April 19, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Oliver Martin - Ashton Kutcher Emily Friehl - Amanda Peet Michelle - Kathryn Hahn Jeeter - Kal Penn Graham Martin - Ty Giordano
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