A Lot Like a Movie 

Latest Ashton Kutcher romance is a lot like many others.

They have different haircuts because, as we are informed even before a single credit has graced the screen, in the beginning it is Seven Years Ago. Seven years ago from when might be the first question. Of course the filmmakers mean from now, but what if I'm watching it for the first time seven years in the future, on a Friday night when there's nothing else left at Blockbuster, not even a shred of my own dignity? I suppose it doesn't matter, because the way Oliver is shod and sheared looks suspiciously longer ago than seven years, somewhere way back in his Pearl Jam phase.

The intention, judging from the rest of the movie, is not to be accurate but to be compelling — in this case to evoke the '90s and thus create a point of departure for a timeline hopscotch meant to connect and part the two over and over again. And then again. Next it is three years later, then two, then one, then three months, then six. It's like "When Harry Met Sally," but then he meets her a few more times. Pretty soon you are wondering just how many more months of near-miss romance you can afford the babysitter.

When Oliver and Emily collide for the second time, she has that very day left a relationship, and he is that very next flying from Los Angeles to start a dot-com in San Francisco. What began as artful one-upsmanship has been forgotten. Now the two are realizing that they love each other but that circumstances will keep them apart. How soon our 20s render us jaded and helpless. I liked the brash, unromantic youngsters and had a hard time transferring my allegiance to two sullen, sappy grown-ups who can't remember to exchange e-mail addresses. Plus, they look and act the same every subsequent time they meet. It's difficult to stay with a movie staged over many years where the characters stop developing after the intro.

Though set to one frequency, Kutcher is thankfully restrained, flaunting neither his frat-boy attitude from "Punk'd" nor his goofball persona from "That '70s Show." Though handsome to the point of distraction, he plays a reflective guy next door quite well, and it is not altogether unkind to note this is one of his most impressive roles. There is an especially good moment where his Oliver, all plans and anxieties, is complaining about a recent breakup to Emily (an equally attractive part by Peet), who keeps turning up the car stereo and singing over his embarrassing snivels.

Nigel Cole, director of such blue-hair fare as "Saving Grace" and "Calendar Girls," knows how to stage a scene and wring emotion out of it. The problem apparent to anyone who's seen his previous work is that he doesn't know how to sustain. His movies tend to drift through their second halves, moving from provocative concepts (matronly pot smokers and pinups) to easy (and dull) resolutions. In "A Lot Like Love," he offers a clichéd, but workable, device and some good scenes, but that's all. Seeing two people gradually hook up in spite of missed opportunities over two hours can be at times funny, charming, poignant and even insightful. But none of that makes it a story. (PG-13) **1/2 S

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