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Dude, why am I so popular?

Kutcher’s rise to fame continues to baffle

Ashton Kutcher is an idiot. Well, he plays one on TV, anyway. It’s no secret that Kutcher has found small-screen success playing dimwitted Michael Kelso on Fox’s “That ’70s Show,” and he’s angling for a big-time movie career as well. But what’s the appeal? There’s got to be a reason a Web search on the guy generates nearly 80,000 hits.

Acting chops? Kutcher is no Sir Laurence Olivier. Heck, he’s barely Joey Lawrence. Yeah, “Dude, Where’s My Car?” made good dough, but can he put butts in seats without Seann William Scott pulling in the Stifler contingent? America will soon find out. Kutcher’s making another attempt to achieve leading-man status with the release of “My Boss’s Daughter.”

Good luck, Kutch. The road to fame is littered with good-looking, young sitcom stars who’ve never — if rarely — found big-screen success. John Stamos. Anson Williams. Mario Lopez. Jason Bateman. Kirk Cameron. The names read like a “Nick at Night” retrospective. Can Kutcher beat the odds and parlay his small-screen success into big-screen box office?

It’s harder than it looks. For every John Travolta who moves from playing Vinnie Barbarino to making $20 million a picture, there’s another who gets left by the pop culture wayside. We’re talking about you, Horshack.

Entertaining a bunch of couch potatoes looking for a mindless way to spend a half hour is one thing, but getting viewers out of their Barcaloungers and into theaters is another thing entirely. Matt LeBlanc, arguably TV’s most lovable lunkhead, hasn’t been able to find a foothold in movies. Even Travolta, after hits like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease,” fell into a chasm from which he couldn’t escape, until “Pulp Fiction” set him free.

So what’s Kutcher got that, say, Joey Lawrence doesn’t? And can he be both a TV star and a box-office draw? It’s possible, but he’s got to play to his strengths.

Kutcher's credentials
We’ve seen him before. Kutcher is hardly the first guy with a toothy grin to find fame playing a dim bulb, and we find that familiarity comforting.

Check any of his non-“That ’70s Show” performances. Kutcher doesn’t stray too far from his safety zone. He’s Keanu Reeves before “Speed”: likable, amusing and light.

His character in “Dude, Where’s My Car?” was little more than a big-screen version of Kelso, and the box office gods rewarded his conforming to viewer expectations with a hefty gross and a deal for a sequel. Dude! Sweet!

He’s likable and eager to please. On his May stint hosting “Saturday Night Live,” he came off as especially real, particularly when he did the monologue prancing around in his tighty-whities. Where Travolta in his heyday seemed somewhat aloof, Kutcher is an affable practical joker. A professional practical joker, now that “Punk’d,” “Candid Camera” for the MTV set, has let Kutcher loose on unaware celebrities.

Teens dig his good looks and penchant for juvenile humor. He’s one of them, but with a hotter girlfriend and keys to the parents’ liquor cabinet. Most adults think he’s harmless enough, like the dachshund next door. Sure, he’s annoying, but he doesn’t bark very loudly and any mess he makes will come out of the rug with a little elbow grease.

He knows when he’s out of his element. But Kutcher seems to be content playing the Kelso role. He knows his boundaries, and he’s not looking to push the envelope. It’s all-Kelso, all the time. “Punk’d”? Kelso with a camera. “Just Married”? Kelso ties the knot. His latest opus, the powderpuff comedy “My Boss’s Daughter,” has Kelso going toe-to-toe with capital-A actor Terence Stamp. Kelso with General Zod.

When you’re pigeonholed like Kutcher is, even flirting with edgier fare can rile the great unwashed. Exhibit A: See what hit the fan when he started to intrude into the fanboy world of celluloid superheroes. When the Internet rumors started that Kutcher was up for not one but two iconic superhero roles, comics fans took to the chat rooms faster than Spidey crawls a wall. Ashton Kutcher as Superman? Kelso as Batman? Sacrilege. Internet pundits spewed venom at the very thought of it, and almost as quickly as the notion was raised, it retreated back to the unholy mist that spawned it.

America is content to keep Kutcher a good-natured goof-off in a trucker hat, and that seems fine with him. So we won’t be seeing him in edgy Sundance fare anytime soon. So he’s not about to do Hamlet in the park. Fine with us. Get yourself into another dumb predicament, Ash!

Take a lesson from Bruce His one swing at gaining gravitas, dating Demi Moore, a woman 15 years his senior, has given us a glimmer of a weightier Kutcher. Or maybe we’re all being Punk’d. Who knows? Maybe Ashton can take some notes from another guy in Demi’s life. Remember him? The smirky guy who cut his chops on a little show called “Moonlighting” before silver-screen success came knocking? Mr. Bruce Willis bided his time, building a TV following that happily followed him to the movies.

And Kutcher could probably do the same, provided he doesn’t stray too far from Kelso-land. In time, theatergoers could be lining up to see him in “Die Hard 8.” “Yippee kai yay, dude!”

America’s not quite ready for that. Not yet.

But that’s okay, because it looks like Kutcher knows a good thing when he sees it. Unlike Travolta, who dropped out as a full-time student in Kotter’s class after big-screen fame came calling, Kutcher signed last month to stay in the ’70s through its 2004-05 season.

Maybe he’s not so stupid after all.