Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ashton Kutcher: Important Public Figure or Most Important Public Figure?

Get a load of this asshole, flaunting his rakishness, mugging for Nikon and its misguided attempt to convince you that this camera is versatile and state-of-the-art. Like all of Kutcher's work, the ad is slight, derivative, and puzzling. But it is significant. What if I were to tell you that Ashton Kutcher and, by extension, this commerical could be the key to understanding fame in the 21st century? His career during this decade, more than anyone else's, reaches down and defines our changing nature of celebrity.

Beginning in 1998, Kutcher transitioned from modeling and starred as hunky goofball Kelso in That '70s Show, a teenaged stoner strain of that most American of forms, the sitcom. As the most physically comedic component of the show, he got many of the more memorable laughs. He was younger then, but still way too old to be a believable high schooler, which is yet another part of the formula.

In 2000, he parlayed his role on the show to a role as a hunky gooball in the teenaged stoner comedy Dude, Where's My Car?, which turned out to be a commercial success, earning $46 million against its $13 million production cost. At this point, he was fulfilling our exact expectations for him and his identity, which was the early part of the decade's recipe for success. We knew who Ashton Kutcher was, and he did nothing to complicate that. As they always do though, things got more complex.

What or who Ashton Kutcher was had been confirmed to us, but he spent the middle part of the aughts attempting to play against that type. His audience met that experimentation with indifference. From 2003 to 2006, he acted in more subtle and mature versions of his persona. My Boss's Daughter (2003) was a slapstick farce, but this time Kutcher's character--shockingly--had a job. Just Married (2003) saw him and the late Brittany Murphy as real-life married grown-ups. The former flopped, but the latter, boosted by a powerful Valentine's Day opening, earned $56 million against its $18 million investment. Audiences vote with their pocketbooks, and the Ashton Kutcher business was still good. He wasn't the most reliable movie star, but he was a fine option on the B+ list.


Part two of this can be about how many years he set us back with the trucker hat.

So what do you do if you're in Kutcher's enviable position in 2004: handsome, rich, and powerful for being dumb, young, and immature? You test your audience by doing the opposite of what you're so famous for. Like Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey before him, Kutcher went serious in 2004's The Butterfly Effect. You can tell how serious it is because he has a beard in it. A comedic actor performing in a drama is kind of like a basketball player's heat check. If it doesn't work, it isn't disastrous; but if it does work, you've reached a whole new level of success. The Butterfly Effect worked even better than we remembered. It had a relatively small budget and grossed almost the exact same amount of money as Just Married, without the built-in audience of Valentine's Day or a marketable second-lead. What's more, even though it isn't regarded as a good movie, many critics singled out Kutcher's performance as not terrible.

So if an actor's commercial success in the first half of this decade is predicated upon filling a role, and Kutcher played against type successfully, doesn't that negate what I've written so far? No. The movie was a success not because Kutcher was doing something new. It was a success because he was, paradoxically, doing exactly what he was supposed to do at this stage of his career. He was still--even by subverting expectations--fulfilling expectations. And his audience, at the media-savvy mid-point of the decade, knew this, even subconsciously.

It helped that Kutcher mitigated the risk of that movie by creating and producing MTV's Punk'd. There, he shouted and guffawed his way through elaborately staged pranks on his unsuspecting celebrity friends. He's a prankster, folks. Just in case you were wondering whether or not he was the damaged, conflicted brooder seen in New Line's The Butterfly Effect, here he is showing you he's the fun-loving enfant terrible in real life that he always pretended to be on the silver screen. Watch him make this driving test impossible for Hilary Duff! Kutcher's audience was ready to move on with his acting as long as it was clear who he really was. Importantly, this was also the first instance of Kutcher being famous for something other than acting.

By 2006, Kutcher was choosing projects to include his loud-mouthed buffoonery within a structure that extended it, as seen in the romance A Lot Like Love (a disaster), the prestigious remake Guess Who, or the actioner The Guardian. In each of these, he played the Lewis to bigger and bigger Martins: Amanda Peet, then Bernie Mac, then Kevin Costner. Guess Who and The Guardian weren't hits--no Ashton Kutcher-driven vehicle has been--but they made money. The perception, however, which is all that is important when it comes to fame, was that Kutcher had become desperate. This was the time to anchor his own pictures, and he was hitching his wagon to another star.

Hijinx. You can tell how generic these movies are by the titles. How can you name your film The Guardian with a straight face?

So what do you do if you're a little older, a little less dumb, and a little more mature? If you're Ashton Kutcher, you have no idea. You try some voice work (Open Season), producing (Miss Guided, Beauty and the Geek), and small roles in independent films (Bobby), none of which works. You pick another role aside a more established, bankable star in a madcap, broad-faced comedy (What Happens in Vegas), and it becomes one of the bigger hits of the summer. Every time he plays an idiot alongside other idiots, people flock to movie theaters. Cast him as a retarded person alongside Adam Sandler, and the screen might spontaneously combust. You confirm what you already know: how people approve of your existence.

Here's what I've been getting at though: If you asked someone to summarize things Ashton Kutcher did to continue being famous in 2008-2009, he might say, "Starred with Cameron Diaz in What Happens in Vegas, which was one of the worst movies of last year." But it's much more likely that he would say, "Amassed a poo-ton of twitter followers, strangely stayed married to Demi Moore, and shilled for Nikon." None of these things have to do with what originally made him famous, but they somehow make him more famous, whatever that word means now.

In all of the examples leading up to the present day, I've used box office figures--all from imdb--to prove whether or not people accepted the different incarnations of what Ashton Kutcher was doing. By the end of the decade, that proves useless. We no longer have any data to support a celebrity's influence. Because he's presently known for things other than acting, he exemplifies the changes in the way we view celebrities. We started this decade knowing what we want from a star and promoting that image with our wallets. By the middle of it, we're second-guessing ourselves because of over-exposure and a more complicated understanding of media. Today, your guess is as good as mine. We've seen what he has to offer as an actor, and we've chosen the real Ashton Kutcher instead. Whereas we used to support cultural developments by paying for them, now they just kind of happen to us.

Kutcher's most recent film is 2009's Spread, which was such an enormous misfire you might not have even heard of it. Domestically, it made $250,000. He probably owns cars that are worth more than the receipts for Spread. In it, he plays a kept-man inching toward thirty, who takes advantage of wealthy cougars. Is this autobiographical or pure acting? Is this a validation of what audiences want or a rejection of it? Is Ashton Kutcher one of the most famous people in the world, or is he past his prime? We have no way of knowing this anymore, and Spread is the best shrug Ashton Kutcher can give.

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