Grumble all you will about Killers, the very bad spy rom-com that opens today, but do acknowledge that Ashton Kutcher and Katharine Heigl look great.
A standard complaint of movie critics (who were not shown Killers in advance, and had to see it in a theater with icky real people) is that Hollywood actors spent more time in the gym than "in the moment," and that the screenwriters' position in a movie's opening credits should be replaced by the trainer responsible for "Mr. Kutcher's abs." But looking fabulous is important for movie stars whether they're Cary Grant and Irene Dunne 70 years ago or Ashton and Katherine here in a genre where the leads are supposed to be instantly attracted to each other. Too often, the cinematography in romantic comedies (Leap Year, The Ugly Truth, All About Steve) robs the stars of their radiance. In Killers, the stars' teeth, hair and other working parts are in pristine condition. Good thing too, since the leads are frequently shot in gigantic close-up which is fine if you're watching on YouTube, but at full-size in a movie theater makes viewers feel as if they were dermatologists inspecting a patient's skin with the Hubble telescope.
This is the one about the spy with spouse problems. Ah, but which one? Well, Killers could be, in its dreams, the Pitt-Jolie Mr. and Mrs. Smith except that the Mrs. isn't also a professional assassin. Or it's The Spy Next Door, the Jackie Chan comedy of a few months back, only the spy got married and tried to retire. It's also James Cameron's (and Arnold's and Jamie Lee's) 1994 True Lies, itself a remake of the 1992 French movie Le Totale! The new film has a real-life semi-corollary in Fair Game, the forthcoming docudrama about CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and her consultant husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn). And in three weeks Killers will have sort of an instant remake: Knight and Day, with Tom Cruise as the spy and Cameron Diaz as the dizzy blond imperiled by her connection to him. Studio bosses should really stop green-lighting this premise after that one. Or, better, before this one.
Jen Kornfeldt is the Heigl dame familiar from Knocked Up, 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth: an attractive, efficient woman who's currently manless, perhaps because her overprotective parents (Tom Selleck and Catherine O'Hara) treat her like a clumsy child. What's she doing on vacation with her folks in Nice, anyway? Running into the topless Spencer (Kutcher), who's really a government assassin or, as he confesses on their first date (while she's asleep), "Let's just say I work for the Blah Blah Blah, and I have a license to blah." In the spy game since his college days (which can't be that long ago, since at 32 Kutcher still looks like a recent refugee from Menudo), he's been eager to get out, alive, and finds love, marriage and a chance at normal living with Jen. Three years later, happily rooted in suburbia with loads of friendly neighbors, he finds that his Blah Blah Blah contact has been murdered and that there's a $20 million price on his head. It's about time Jen knows what his old job was, before they both die.
In the recent indie parable The Joneses a much more acute satire of suburban manners starring Kutcher's actual wife Demi Moore the twist was that the central family in an upscale neighborhood was an otherwise unrelated foursome of marketers trying to peddle expensive products to their neighbors. The gag in Killers is that the hit man assigned to Spencer could be any one, or every one, of his new best friends. It's the CIA equivalent of the 1940s joke about a meeting of the American Communist Party where everyone turns out to be an undercover FBI agent. First up to try chopping Spencer into sirloin is a pal from the office, Henry (Rob Riggle, late of The Daily Show). Their fight scene has both decently choreographed mayhem and a nice dialogue exchange, mid-tussle, where Spencer muses, "I thought we were friends," and Henry grunts, "Really? I never sensed that investment."
I realize I may be committing the sin of making the movie sound diverting, charming and/or witty. It is not. The second-act twist is okay that Spencer's neighborhood are popping up like clowns out of a circus car, and they're all Chucky but Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin's script for this purported comedy has exactly one good laugh-line (when Jen, scanning Henry's work computer for clues to the other killers, stumbles onto a porn site and asks Spencer how to get out, "because there are some things you cannot unsee"). There's almost no suspense, since anyone who has the dimmest acquaintance with thriller plots knows that the ultimate villain is always played by the performer billed just below the two stars. We might hope for effervescence; but director Robert Luketic invests the proceedings with zero fizz. He scored with his first features, Legally Blonde and Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, but after Monster-in-Law, The Ugly Truth and this, Luketic has to be disqualified from helming comedies.
Worst of all, the film persists in the current rotten trend of making the heroine drop 40 points off her IQ when she's in a crisis. Once she's absorbed the shock of her husband's vocation and has dodged death attempts from a half-dozen malefactors, could Jen try something more useful than screaming, whining or pausing to take a pregnancy test in a building full of would-be murderers? You might expect that the innocent party in a rom-com thriller would experience a little dawning of we're-in-this-together, or try to help her husband break free from a strangle-hold maybe feel the sick-thrill empowerment of aiming a loaded gun at a bad guy. She would become her husband's partner, because that's what strong women do. But that stage takes ages for Jen to attain, and by then Killers is kaput.
Heigl remains an appealing, natural presence in movies, however blithering the characters she plays. And Kutcher occasionally triumphs over the burden of being too cute to be taken seriously, or even comically. So if you draw the short straw this weekend and wind up in this movie, take what pleasure you can from the two stars. They look great; it's just the state of romantic comedy that looks terminal.