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At long last love: Kutcher and Peet take forever to connect

A Lot Like Love exemplifies the happiness-deferred romance, in which two friends-but-should-be-paramours repeatedly convene, separate, and reconvene over several years, finally staying together only after feature run-time has elapsed. Skimming through lonely stretches and careerist angst, the movie focuses on incidents that threaten the final hookup. But the chemistry between diaper salesman Ashton Kutcher and photo hound Amanda Peet is so off that the pairing scans as an alienation effect—one enhanced by their age difference, as well as Peet's resemblance (in her goth, graduate-age New York scenes) to an unwaxed Demi Moore. The banter soon develops a rhythm: Hurting from a breakup, Peet gets too drunk to nuzzle and Kutcher doesn't complain; years later, on a car trip, Kutcher whines about his ex and Peet shrugs it off. Interjections from perennial second bananas Kathryn Hahn (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) and Kal Penn (winning even when not conjuring vivified bags of pot) generate the only sparks. BEN KENIGSBERG


Kutcher (right) and demi-Moore Peet
photo: Ben Glass
Kutcher (right) and demi-Moore Peet

BROOKLYN UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL
April 20 through 24, Brooklyn Lyceum

The third annual Brooklyn Underground Film Festival justifies its nascent existence with a respectable collection of 100 films from 12 countries—opening with Abel Raises Cain, a daughter's-eye view of notorious prankster Alan Abel, which won the documentary prize at Slamdance, and closing with Caroline Martel's hour-long montage of telephone company movies The Phantom of the Operator (recently screened at MOMA). Film critics should relate to Alan Zweig's I, Curmudgeon, a lively film about "negative charisma." An extended rant from a group of misanthropes—including Harvey Pekar, Fran Lebowitz, and Mark Eitzel—Zweig's deeply personal documentary offers chronic dissatisfaction as a noble philosophy. These talking heads spout weary wisdom on coping with a culture of positivity and raging against the collective inertia of a world running away from truth. One interviewee recounts an overheard definition of the titular term: "one who emanates a low murmuring." While inevitably futile in the face of Bush-era social degeneration, I, Curmudgeon's murmur has the form of a Ginsbergian howl.

Another dictionary definition haunts Zev Asher's haphazard Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat (opening next week). Casuistry, or justifying the unjustifiable through rationalization, becomes Canadian art student Jesse Power's raison d'être after he pleads guilty to the videotaped 2001 ritual murder of a domesticated cat. Power can't mask his demented fixations, but he might have a point about the double standards of a meat-devouring, pet-murder-decrying contemporary society. Art or cruelty? I'd say both. AKIVA GOTTLIEB


MADISON
Directed by William Bindley
MGM, opens April 22

Madison's titular Indiana burg inhabits Frank Capra's timeless, preposterously simple Americana vacuum, but its moneylenders have better customer service than those in Bedford Falls. When racer Jim Caviezel needs a few days to cover the check he's written for the privilege of Madison hosting a gold-cup hydroplane competition, he just asks the local bank to stall. "What is this, Mayberry?" asks a snobbish regatta lord. Shelved since 2001, and released now presumably to ride the Passionate coattails of its working-class hero, Madison peddles condescending hokum as heartland values. A "true story" set in 1971, the movie yet stands provincially aloof from that era's divisive war and raging civil battles. The Straight Story, a similarly Midwestern inspirational yarn, pairs a decrepit tractor with the ancient wounds of World War II. Imagine what David Lynch could have done with a speedboat and Southeast Asia still burning. The supporting cast includes the reliable Paul Dooley (whose Breaking Away Hoosier was flintier than this bunch), a docile Bruce Dern, and Jake Lloyd, who more or less reprises his Phantom Menace pip-squeak irritant. BENJAMIN STRONG


THE MAN WHO COPIED
Written and directed by Jorge Furtado
TLA, opens April 22, Quad

A coming-of-age rom-com with a dark streak as wide as the Amazon, The Man Who Copied squanders the chance to explore the plight of Brazil's young working poor. Instead, it first defines poverty as the inability to buy cool sneakers and impress girls. By the time the exposition-heavy first half devolves into the implausible second half, poverty justifies counterfeiting, armed robbery, and murder. Narrating in an unrelenting voice-over, a 20-year-old copy-store clerk (Lázaro Ramos) spies with binoculars on a girl who lives across the street (Leandra Leal) and stalks her at the store where she works. He can't afford to ask her out on a date, so he pretends to be comparison shopping for a birthday present for his mom. To keep up the ruse, he starts xeroxing banknotes to pay for the gift. He then has to cook up increasingly elaborate schemes to cover up his earlier scams. Soon the law of diminishing returns kicks in for characters and audience alike. In spite of some genuinely charming performances, The Man Who Copiedis about as engaging as a paper jam. JORGE MORALES


NIGHT OF HENNA
Written and directed by Hassan Zee
Illuminare, opens April 22, ImaginAsian

San Francisco indie striver Hassan Zee's Pakistani American spin on Monsoon Wedding hobbles a likable cast with dialogue flatter than Bollywood's cheesiest. His premise is workable: Soon after beautiful Pakistan-educated Hava (Pooja Kumar) returns to her California family, she is doffing her scarf, working in a café, and crushing out on Justin (Craig Marker), a blond music major who serenades her with Sufi-style guitar. The relationship is mirrored by another cross-cultural romance—this one between Hava's arranged fiancé, Salman (Suhail Tayeb), and his college squeeze. The look of the film is professional, and nuanced passing scenes hint at deep cultural rifts between the lovebirds—at one point we watch Justin happily smoking pot by the ocean with friends, something he won't readily share with Hava. But as written, Hava's parents are cartoons, and her rapid Westernization is of the hokey "But I want to go to college" variety (Kumar's Pakistani accent also vacillates wildly). Worse yet, Zee's twentysomethings seem to live outside the pop matrix that would give their temptations a more urgent, mall-culture sheen. And the resolution, which simply supplants arranged marriage with love marriage, leaves tough topics of long-term dating and sex to a bolder film. LAURA SINAGRA

 
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