Topher Grace's dopey Tad Hamilton.

Topher Grace's dopey Tad Hamilton.

Topher Grace's dopey Tad Hamilton.

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Jan. 23 2004 4:03 PM

Grace Under Fire

A young star in his first dud: Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!

Real life vs. Hollywood: Nobody wins
Real life vs. Hollywood: Nobody wins

It would be pleasant to live in a world in which Win a Date With Tad Hamilton! (Dreamworks) seemed like a good movie. The picture opens, appropriately enough, in a cinema, with three of its characters, a man and two women, watching a cornball World War II romance starring twentysomething heartthrob Tad Hamilton (Josh Duhamel). The young man, Pete (Topher Grace), is rolling his eyes at the tender final scene, but his female companions, blond and wholesome Rosalee Futch (Kate Bosworth) and her fleshier comic-relief pal Cathy Feely (Ginnifer Goodwin), are sobbing unashamedly. As the lights come up, they wonder where their favorite actor could be at that very moment—and Rosalee speculates, "In church."

This would be impossibly naive in, say, 1960, but in the present (when this is supposedly set) it suggests a level of idiocy comparable to believing in "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." There is a shock cut to the actor speeding through Beverly Hills with a girl in his lap and a bottle of booze in his hand—yet even this reality check has a quaint feel. The film's idea of "real life" is phonier than any of Tad Hamilton's nudge-nudge-wink-wink Hollywood vehicles.

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The gimmick of Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!, directed by Robert Luketic from a script by Victor Levin, is that the movie star's bacchanalian lifestyle is on the verge of derailing his career, so his agent (Nathan Lane) and manager (Sean Hayes)—both named Richard Levy, a joke that will certainly give a chuckle to Spike Lee, Franco Zefferelli, Mel Gibson, and a few others—devise a contest to hook him up for an evening with an all-American girl. It's a measure of the movie's dopiness that no one raises the obvious objection: that the last thing you want to do when an actor has been nailed for misbehavior is publicly feed him a virgin. (Imagine a "Win a Date With Rob Lowe" contest on the heels of the actor's infamous sex video.) Anyway, the wide-eyed Rosalee—a checkout clerk at a Piggly Wiggly—wins the contest and shortly thereafter jets from West Virginia to Los Angeles. Pete, who adores her but in 22 years of friendship has never been able to declare his love, exclaims, "Guard your carnal treasure!" He says that several times, actually, which gives you some idea of what a charmer he is.

That's one of the movie's few oddities: that Topher Grace's Pete—the one we're supposed to be rooting for—is a graceless jerk while Duhamel's shallow movie star is rather sweet. Duhamel gives the closest thing to a real performance here. He's easy with his own impossible handsomeness, and he doesn't milk the character's self-centeredness for easy yuks. He even makes it semiplausible that this pampered Hollywood aristocrat could fall in love with the idea of moving to West Virginia and straightening out his life.

The film is intended, though, as a vehicle for Kate Bosworth, the blonde whose head was often digitally affixed to someone else's body in last summer's surfer-chick flick Blue Crush. She has a couple of endearing, Pretty Woman-ish bits: When Hamilton beckons her to dinner, she gives a dazed little whinny of assent, and her fair skin flushes pink when she's embarrassed or enraptured. I'd have liked her more, though, if the movie didn't push her lack of feminine wiles so hard. She has to utter pet expressions like "Shake-a-doo!" (for "Wow!"). And it's a ludicrous moment when she removes her retainer in the fancy Hollywood restaurant, as if she'd be so thoughtless as to leave it in for the biggest date of her life. (We never see that retainer again: Once they've hauled it out, the filmmakers don't even have the wit to make it a running gag.)

This is the sort of movie where a fat black cashier is brought in for the purpose of saying to the heroine, "You go, girl!" There are pop songs between almost every scene and an extended plug for Pringles potato chips—which have the distinction of seeming less synthetic than the movie that invokes them. It must be admitted that the final 10 minutes of Win A Date With Tad Hamilton! are likable: one cliché following another, but with charming restraint. Or it might just have been that the movie's simple-mindedness wore me down. As I sat there smiling, I imagined Doris Day sitting next to me, rolling her eyes.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.