Ashton Kutcher is a Hollywood optical illusion: Everything about him — the movies he makes, his sitcom past, his goofball TV ads, his omnipresence on Twitter — seems to scream “C list.” And yet from a different angle, when you look at his high-profile marriage to Demi Moore, the fact that his grosses are actually disproportionately high compared to the number of people you know who went to see the movies, and his many TV-production deals he starts to seem a lot better. Today his new movie, No Strings Attached, opens, and his impressive co-stars — Natalie Portman as his love interest; Kevin Kline as his dad — are classier than who is usually found in his middlebrow wheelhouse, romantic comedies. Will acting opposite a likely Oscar nominee raise his stature, or will he drag her down? Or is it impossible to change his status: He just is Ashton Kutcher, and that will never change? There’s only one way to find out: Speak to industry experts to answer the question, if Ashton Kutcher were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: A working-class Midwestern kid turned fashion model, Kutcher moved to L.A. at age 19 to become an actor. His first week of auditioning, he landed the role of dim-witted pretty boy Michael Kelso on That ‘70s Show and was able to parlay that into major roles playing goofy pretty boys on the big screen, like in Dude, Where’s My Car? and the oddly un-question-marked Guess Who. His romantic comedies were made on the cheap, panned by critics, and embraced by audiences who don’t care about critics. He has dabbled in other genres: thriller (2004’s campy The Butterfly Effect), macho drama (as young buck to Kevin Costner’s wizened mentor in 2006’s The Guardian), and even cinema verité lite (2009’s Spread), but none carved a new lasting path for him, and he has always scampered back to lighter fare, like 2008’s What Happens in Vegas. Rotten Tomatoes score? Twenty-seven percent. Gross? $219.4 million worldwide. However, he stumbled in last year’s Killers, which only took in $93.4 globally.
But the key to his lasting popularity is largely helped by his unstoppable ability to start, or capitalize on, trends. Remember the trucker-hat trend? Annoyingly pervasive, and mostly to his credit. And his prank show Punk’d injected a new word into the vernacular, cemented his rep as a fun guy you’d want to hang out with, and kicked off his successful and prolific career as a TV producer with his company, Katalyst Films. In 2003 he began dating Demi Moore, a relationship (and now marriage) that has steadily garnered tabloid speculation and fan admiration ever since. (Even after eight years, it was still fodder for a Ricky Gervais “Bruce Willis’s son” joke at the Golden Globes.) Kutcher was the first celebrity to leverage Twitter, and the first to gain a million followers. Now over 6 million fans tune in for his thoughts on technology and celebrity, not to mention his flirtatious exchanges with Moore.
Peers: Ryan Reynolds (34), Bradley Cooper (36), and Seth Rogen (28) are all ahead ahead of him when they’re offering roles, whereas Kutcher and fellow Katherine Heigl alumnus Josh Duhamel (38) are just about even. Jason Lee (40) is in his rear-view mirror — if only by half a car-length.
Market Value: As a movie actor, Kutcher is a Teflon star. He gets credit for the modest hits, but takes no blame for the failures. He was one of the focal points of the marketing for Valentine’s Day ($216 million worldwide), yet he shared billing with approximately 1,000 other stars, so one can’t pin it on him. His second biggest score was 2003’s Cheaper by the Dozen ($190.2 million), but he was a trendy supporting player to Steve Martin. However, when Killers failed, it was considered a referendum on Heigl’s dimming power. Kutcher, meanwhile, just backed away and did No Strings Attached, in which he plays a marginally smarter version of his other characters; it’s the usual Kutcher vehicle, with a master’s degree. But as a romantic comedy in which he mostly just has to look cute and land punch lines, it seems well within his ballpark. As one top agent says, “He’s passed through the fire, and now, like the jazz song says, ‘He’s Too Hot Not to Cool Down’ because he unfailingly goes back to the same formula, whether it worked or not. What’s that famous Pauline Kael quote? ‘He runs the gamut from A to B’? I think she was referring to Robert Mitchum, but it very much applies here.”
As for future projects, Kutcher’s field seems to be either empty or wide open, depending how you look at it. The only major movie he has currently lined up is a no-brainer, the sequel to Valentine’s Day. However, he’s very busy with his production company, Katalyst, which takes the same approach that he does as an actor, and has roughly the same track record: It aims for light, dopey fare filled with attractive people, such as The Beautiful Life, True Beauty, and Beauty and the Geek. Paralleling his acting career, it’s screaming along, unaffected by its middling track record. He’s only had two hits — Punk’d and Beauty and the Geek — while most of the rest of his shows have been quickly canceled. However, networks keep coming back to him: His current development slate includes two sitcoms for CBS based on (don’t wince) Twitter feeds, and a rumored reboot of Punk’d starring Justin Bieber.
What Hollywood Thinks: Insiders agree that Kutcher has value — but more as a brand than an actor. “He’s all about being an impresario of pop culture,” says a manager. “And look, he’s making a tremendous amount of money — he probably makes about $25 million or $30 million a year, but I’d guess that only a third of that comes from acting. If you’re making $10 million a year in TV, and another $10 million in endorsements, the acting is just … incremental. But he’s a threat in terms of new media, getting paid to tweet, promotions, products, and on a lower level, acting. He doesn’t make a movie ‘go’; he’s who you go to when the people you really wanted have passed, but the studio’s decided that they’re making the movie no matter what.”
“He’s become a personality, rather than someone who’s looked at by actors admiringly,” a publicist tells us. “Curiously, with Ashton I don’t feel like there has been an overall dialogue about this guy’s PR beyond a project-by-project basis. It’s like, ‘Hey, now I’m doin’ a movie!’ — but I don’t get a sense of a bigger picture dialogue about strategy happening.”
Could his focus on branding be a strength, rather than a weakness? The agents seem more inclined to see it that way. “On some level, he’s transcended acting,” gushes one. “But he also has this enduring good nature. He’s never been bitter about his lack of ‘street cred’ [as an actor]: He doesn’t carry his limitations like a cross. And he’s got this infectious sense of humor — the practical-jokes thing — so there’s a lot of goodwill, if not high hopes. Maybe it’s Kabbalah, or his Midwestern upbringing, but he does ‘fifth place’ better than anyone else. Now, if he was trying to do W. Somerset Maugham material, I’d be pissed: It’s only when people aspire to that which is beyond their reach that we begin to pity or resent them in Hollywood. But he stumps for his stupid movies with the same shit-eating grin as he does for the one’s that are going to work, and so: I love this guy!” Says another top agent: “I’d sign him, because I think there’s still business to be done here.”
The Analysis: In a way, Ashton Kutcher has made a career of exceeding low expectations. He’s aware of his limitations, and though he has ventured into more serious fare, he makes sure to zip back to the same kind of role that has always worked for him. His biggest asset is likability: Fans adore him because he seems both relatable and untouchable, in life as in the movies. (That was the approach on his string of Nikon commercials: Women ogle Ashton the star, yet he’s still a goofball.) And he’s not in any way pretentious, so if you don’t like him, you just ignore him, but you don’t actively root for him to fail. He gives off the vibe of a guy who you know could win you over if you just had a drink with him. And that leaves others to take the hit. Just as Killers’s failure was blamed on Heigl, No Strings Attached will be looked on as a referendum on Natalie Portman. If it’s bad, will it hurt her chances at an Oscar? Can she handle humor? And while all of this chattering is going on, Kutcher will politely excuse himself and head off to his next film. The higher you climb, the more people want to poke at you, and Kutcher looks happy just where he is. Or at least maybe that’s just his PR strategy, and the savvy actor-producer (who can put on a serious face when promoting his foundation to stop child sex slavery and human trafficking) will surprise us all with whatever the intellectual equivalent is of getting a nation to wear trucker hats.
The Bottom Line: Ashton Kutcher has proven he can survive flop after flop with his star quotient intact, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever have a huge blockbuster hit; there seems to be a ceiling to how many people will see him. Yet winning over the worldwide movie audience doesn’t seem to be his priority. He’s got his TV projects (none of which are aiming for Peabodys), his charity, and his tweets. Ultimately, his goal is to be Ashton Kutcher, Guy Everyone Knows and Can’t Stay Mad At, and that’s serving him well.
Buy/Sell/Hold: As an actor, he’s a sell: His stock isn’t going any higher, and while it may plateau for a while, in the long term it will only go down. However, if you’re investing in Ashton, Inc., it’s a hold. You never know when he’s going to ride a new trend.