Beware of any film that begins with a title card telling you that it’s starting in the distant past and then promises to proceed to the present in chronological steps that it will announce with further blurbs at every stage. It’s almost inevitable that by the time the pattern has reached the halfway point, you’ll be dreading the thought of how many episodes are yet to come, hoping against hope that things will spring forward quickly and skip a few more years in the process. Instead of enjoying the ride, you wind up counting how many more dreary sequences you have to get through before the movie finally reaches its foreordained conclusion.

That unhappy scenario is what a viewer goes through watching “A Lot Like Love,” a limp romantic comedy that spans seven years recounting how two people, obviously destined for one another but kept apart by circumstances, eventually fall into one another’s arms for good. As the couple’s hearts struggle through a series of manufactured crises, your heart will sink at the number of years in their on-and-off relationship you still have to endure. The prolonged wait for the inevitable denouement soon ceases to be at all pleasant and becomes utterly exasperating.

The periodic lovebirds are Oliver Martin (Ashton Kutcher, more subdued than usual but still oddly ingratiating) and Emily Friehl (Amanda Peet, playing hard-edged all too convincingly). The two meet on a flight from L.A. to New York (he going there to visit his deaf brother, she to visit her father and stepmother), during which the abrasive Emily, who’s just had a fight with her rocker boyfriend, seduces the good-natured–and obviously smitten–fellow in the lavatory. Later on they meet again in the city–just the first of many unlikely coincidences in Colin Patrick Lynch’s script–and spend one of those cutesy days together during which they overlook their obvious mutual attraction to emphasize instead their apparent incompatibility. As they part, he gives her his parents’ phone number with instructions to call in seven years so he can prove that his plan to acquire wealth and wife by then will have succeeded. (Just think of this dumb business as an ill-conceived riff on “Before Sunrise.”) Three years later, Emily, having just been dumped by her boyfriend Peter (Gabriel Mann), calls Oliver as a last resort and they get together for a spectacular New Year’s Eve–after which, unfortunately, he’s moving to San Francisco to set up an internet diaper-delivery business with his chum Jeeter (Kal Penn). Two years further on, Oliver is putting the finishing touches to his web-based dream, only to be unceremoniously dumped by his live-in girlfriend, which prompts him to fly back to L.A. and seek consolation from Emily, now an up-and-coming photographer. Once again they share a brief fling, this time with a trip to the desert, but he has to break it off to fly to New York and secure investment capital for the business. A year later, however, the website’s collapsed along with so many others (by this time, frankly, the picture seems to have dragged on longer than the dot.com bubble itself) and Oliver moves back home with his parents, broke and broken. He reconnects with Emily, now a successful shutterbug, by serenading her (badly, in a scene that repeats the gag Kutcher pulled off much more successfully just last month in “Guess Who”), but by now she’s engaged to a handsome fellow (Jeremy Sisto). This sort of situation clearly demands a “Graduate”-like finale, but in this case a further twist is inserted before it comes.

“A Lot Like Love” clearly belongs to that old chestnut, the perpetually interrupted romance (or coitus romanticus interruptus)–a genre that absolutely demands two ingredients to succeed: clever reasons for the couple to separate and likable lead characters. This movie, unhappily, has neither. The causes behind the repeated breaks in this prolonged dance contrived by Lynch are completely arbitrary and utterly unamusing. (So too is Emily’s proclivity for constantly bumping into her ex, Peter.) And he certainly hasn’t written Oliver and Emily in a fashion designed to engender any affection for them. He’s basically a hapless doofus and she a brusquely unpleasant ball-buster, and it’s difficult to understand what they see in one another beyond the purely physical side. (The fact that they engage in sex so quickly and so lustfully makes it hard to think of them in particularly elevated terms, too.) Under these circumstances Kutcher acquits himself reasonably well–he’s not as likable as he was in “Guess Who,” but he’s not obnoxious either. That’s more than can be said of Peet, who comes across as so boorish and self-centered that you feel the only sort of smack she deserves isn’t the sort applied with the lips. Among the supporting cast Ty Giordano has a rumpled charm as Oliver’s brother and Penn shows his well-tuned comic timing, but that’s about it. Nigel Cole directs in an enervated fashion that throws the picture’s clumsy seams into bold relief rather than finessing them, and technically the production is just average.

In describing “A Lot Like Love,” the press notes call it “a story of bad timing.” It turns out that description is all too accurate, though not in the way the wordsmith intended. The timing that’s off isn’t so much in Oliver and Emily as in the script and direction; the result is a picture that, like a malfunctioning car engine, misfires on almost all cylinders. “A Lot Like Love” is more like a wheezing cinematic clunker.