question of the day: Is Ashton Kutcher the new Clark Gable? And if not, who is?

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir appears to be absolute in earnest when he suggests that Ashton Kutcher has “massive star potential,” in spite of the fact that Killers has just bombed at the box office. Well, perhaps “bombed” is too strong: estimates right now peg the misbegotten spy comedy with a debut of a little over $16 million… but that was good enough for only third place, just barely behind the other new comedy, Get Him to the Greek. But both films are well behind Shrek Forever After, still at No. 1 in its third week and adding another $25 million-plus to its coffers. The fourth Shrek installment is tepid enough, and to see it continue to dominate says a lot about how uninspiring the slate of current movies is.

One thing it says, it seems to me, is that Ashton Kutcher does not have massive star potential, because wouldn’t the audiences he supposedly should appeal to have flocked to see him even in a movie admitted to be crap by its own studio? (Lionsgate didn’t screen the film for critics before it opened.) But let’s see what O’Hehir has to say about the should-be star:

Indeed, I’ve been pondering the Kutch-nundrum since before his non-breakthrough with “Spread,” and I’m not getting anywhere with it. I’ve always found Kutcher a tremendously likable, funny and magnetic screen presence. He’s a born movie actor, not a master thespian; I have no desire to see him in “Macbeth” or “Uncle Vanya.” (He might be good in “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) But when Kutcher’s not on autopilot — the way he was the whole way through “Valentine’s Day,” for instance — he’s capable of wily, lively performances that work on various levels and exhibit a ferocious animal intelligence.

We already know that Kutcher has tremendous appeal to the ladies (and to quite a few gentlemen, I would imagine), but you can go to your average Hollywood casting call and find two dozen guys who are that good-looking. Thing is, most of them are going to be assholes. Kutcher’s secret ingredient is his good-humored charm, the sense that he’s not taking the whole game all that seriously — and most of all, the fact that he’s obviously having fun. There’s a definite void in the male-star market, with George Clooney and Tom Cruise getting older and Leonardo DiCaprio playing only tortured Scorsese roles, and Kutcher’s upside as a leading man whom women long to, um, know better and men long to emulate is very, very high. The closest parallel I can find — I’m ready for the screaming! — is Clark Gable.

Before you explode, let me explain that I mean the closest possible 21st-century cognate or equivalent to Gable, since the roles Gable played, and the kind of public figure he was, are not available today. Like Gable, Kutcher’s always going to play the same debonair, good-humored guy who thinks of himself as in on the grand joke of life, but who allows himself to get pulled through the mill of love by some broad anyway. If anything, Kutcher’s a lot less of a blasé sophisticate than Gable was; Kutcher’s attempt to play a sharp-dressed, French-speaking, soulless spook in the early scenes of “Killers” are particularly flat. (In fairness, that’s a fake Cary Grant role, not a fake Gable role.)

O’Hehir goes on to catalogue all the many ways in which Kutcher is a just plain nice guy, from the fact that he is actually an Iowa farm boy to how he personally interacts with his millions of Twitter followers without apparent aid of a marketing team. But is that enough to make him — or to make anyone — the next Clark Gable?

Is Ashton Kutcher the new Clark Gable? And if not, who is? Do we even need another Clark Gable?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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