The Perfect Man, a romantic comedy starring Hilary Duff, isn't very good. And the problem for any self-respecting reviewer is how to critique it without taking the obvious cheap shots at its likable but over-exposed young star. Hilary's surname, after all, practically begs the one-liners. "Enough Duff" works. So does "Over-Duffed." Then there are the rhymes: "Duff Not Tough Enough" or "Duff Tough Stuff to Swallow." It's all too easy. But it's not exactly fair, either. Name and over-exposure aside, The Perfect Man's problem is not really its star. The real culprit is a story that manages to be simultaneously utterly implausible and completely predictable (no mean feat when you think about it), a story that relies on cringe-worthy dialogue sure to elicit at least the occasional groan from anyone over the age of, say, eleven. The script has only itself—and writers Michael McQuown and Heather Robinson—to blame. No amount of Duffing could save this turkey. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.)
Duff plays Holly Hamilton, the sixteen-year-old daughter of single mom Jean (Heather Locklear). Jean is rather anxious (read: desperate) to find a good man (read: any man) and settle down; not surprisingly her pathological neediness does not yield much relational fruit, leaving her to travel from one broken relationship to another. And "travel" is the operative word. Each time her love life hits the skids, Jean hits the road, dragging Holly and her kid sister Zoe (an adorable Aria Wallace) to a new "adventure" in an unfamiliar city. In the opening scenes, we learn that the winsome Holly has never had the chance to stay in one city long enough to attend even a single high school dance. And no sooner is she daring to dream a little and pull her never-worn red party dress out of mothballs than her mom is breaking up with the Wichita Edition of the Dead-Beat Boyfriend and cranking up the Patsy Cline. It's Moving Day again—and this time the new adventure is Brooklyn (played by the lovely Canadian city of Toronto).
Brooklyn turns out to be not-so-bad—miraculously, Jean's baker's salary is enough to swing a spacious New York apartment. (Did I mention that Jean is a baker? One whom, we learn later, mourns the loss of her secret, youthful dream to change the world with her cakes?) Jean is surrounded by a gaggle of well-meaning, tongue-wagging co-workers (one of whom congratulates the blossoming Holly on her "speed bumps"). Meanwhile, Holly finds a couple of soulmates at school: Adam (Ben Feldman) is a sensitive and artistic (and cute!) young man deeply into both comic books and Holly, while Amy (Vanessa Lengies) is a no-nonsense New Yawk high school confidante.
Holly could settle quite happily into her new life if her mom's obsession with finding a mate would only go into remission. But it's not long (roughly five minutes) before Jean is interrupting Holly's laptop blog time and insisting that she scan a new photo and post her mother's profile on Match.Com. (I know, I know, the idea that any woman who looks like Heather Locklear would have such difficulty finding at least some initial prospects is ridiculous, but a stretch like that is the least of this movie's worries.) Jean's desperation equals Holly's humiliation (particularly at PTA meetings) and, when a new, typically inappropriate suitor emerges, Holly realizes she's had about all she can take.
Lenny Horton (Mike O'Malley of TV's Yes, Dear), the bread manager at the bakery, falls hard for Jean, so hard he asks if he can pick her up in his muscle car (she'll just have to remove her shoes to protect the new floor mats) and whisk her away to a Styx tribute band concert. The night of the date Lenny complements Jean on her outfit (suggesting it was purchased from "who's-a-hottie.com"), dances the Robotic, lifts his lighter high and weeps openly to the strains of "Babe." Lenny's character is one of the few truly funny aspects of The Perfect Man—O'Malley takes him right over the top and rises above the soapy pseudo-pathos that plagues most of the film.
Holly, understandably, is not enthusiastic about her mom's new prospect. Desperate to divert yet another doomed relationship, Holly decides to concoct a secret admirer—the Perfect Man. She finds an unsuspecting consultant—asking her sidekick Amy's worldly-wise Uncle Ben (Chris Noth, Law and Order, Sex in the City) to answer some questions about romantic relationships for a "school project." It all seems innocent enough—she'll send a few flowers, write a few e-mails, whatever it takes to distract her mom long enough to alleviate the Lenny Threat. Ah, but in a bit of Super Obvious Foreshadowing, Holly develops her whispered plan with Amy in English while Potential Boyfriend Adam is asked to explain to the class the meaning of the lines: "What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
The rest of the film unfolds pretty much the way you'd expect, complete with Three's Company-esque mistaken identities and mishaps. From a plot perspective, The Perfect Man's web could stand a bit more tangling. But underneath all the banal predictability is a premise that is entirely too twisted and tangled. Holly's mom behaves in ways that are needy and selfish to the point of pathology. It would be one thing if The Perfect Man offered a mature and developed exploration into the psychological factors that have made Jean who she is, but of course it doesn't. The Perfect Man is a movie aimed squarely at young teens and even pre-teens, and all the relationships—especially the adult ones—are explored and resolved at that level. There are plenty of successful teen movies out there that leave me rolling my eyes. True, I'm hardly in the target demographic, but The Perfect Man also left me with a queasy feeling in my stomach—because, despite some half-hearted attempts to deliver a Good Message at the end, it seems likely that the average impressionable young girl will take away the notion that (a) life is not worth living without a mate, and (b) once you find that mate, you can expect all other problems to neatly resolve in a manner consistent with the last 5 minutes of your favorite sit-com.
Hilary Duff has every right to continue making movies for tweens and teens, and, if the money keeps coming in, Hollywood will make sure she does. She won't make those films for adults, nor should she. But I think it's only fair for the adults to make one teeny, tiny request: Leave us out of it. I'm not saying there should not be adult mentors or parents or even adult nemeses in teen movies. Nor am I saying that there aren't plenty of thoughtful teens out there ready to take on more challenging subject matter. But if I may generalize about the genre of teen/tween movies, I think it's fair to say they should not attempt to explore adult relationships—particularly deeply troubled ones—with any level of seriousness. Let cotton candy be cotton candy. There will be plenty of time to talk turkey later.Discussion starters
- Holly deceives her mom, partly out of a desire to help her. When (if ever) is it OK to deceive someone?
- Jean's desire to find a mate is so strong she will sacrifice almost anything in the pursuit. Has there ever been anything in your life you wanted that badly? Did you break its hold on you? How?
- Do you believe there is one romantic soul mate (the "perfect" man or woman) for each person?
- Both Jean and Holly have a tendency to want to run away when relationships get difficult. When should you stick out a problematic relationship? When should you walk away?
- Although Jean is somewhat of a caricature, there are plenty of women (and men) whose insecurities leave them trying to find their worth in relationships or accomplishments. What is the key to self-worth? How do you help someone find it?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Perfect Man is rated PG for "some mildly suggestive content." There is a stereotyped gay character who uses flirtatious and suggestive innuendo, most of which will go over the heads of younger teens. There is very little inappropriate language, and the characters' wardrobes and behavior are modest. It is only the underlying message inherent in one main character's obsession with finding a mate that some viewers may find objectionable.
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Critics are raising their voices in protest of Hilary Duff's latest comedy, The Perfect Man, in which she plays a teenager who conspires to find an ideal match for her mother (Heather Locklear).
The story is driven by a familiar premise, one that has shown up in two other recent films: one of the central characters tries to encourage a family member by inventing a fictional pen pal and composing letters from that imaginary character. Eventually, when the recipient gets too curious, the writer scrambles to conceal the truth, sometimes finding an "actor" to impersonate the writer. In Dear Frankie, a wonderfully endearing comedy, the letters come from a young boy's mother who is trying to cover up for the fact that the boy's real father is a monster. In the critically acclaimed Since Otar Left, a young woman mourning the death of her uncle is persuaded by her mother to impersonate the dead man through letters to her grandmother, trying to protect the old woman from the heartbreak of her son's untimely death.
In The Perfect Man, Holly pens letters to her mother that are supposedly from a secret admirer, and ends up having to find someone to "play the part" of the mysterious correspondent (Chris Noth). This time, the reviewers are not so impressed.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "In the hands of a more accomplished writer and director, The Perfect Man could have been a much more textured—and entertaining—mother-daughter movie. But as it is, the film's anemic, cliché-riddled script has only Duff's buoyant charm to keep it afloat."
Lacy Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) calls the film "flatly forgettable. It will play well with Hilary Duff's 'tween fan base, and makes for a mildly entertaining 'girls night out' show … if nothing else is playing."
Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says, "It's just too bad that the characters … aside from Holly, never seem to feel (or think about) anything very deeply. In the Perfect Movie, the lesson might have been more convincing."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it an "insipid by-the-numbers story," and concludes, "If the tracks are laid improperly, it doesn't matter how fast you drive the engine. There's no avoiding the train wreck."
Did anybody like this movie? Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) seems impressed, saying director Mark Rosman "hits all the right emotional notes to draw daughters and moms into the relationships between the characters. The strength of those relationships and the movie's relative wholesomeness helps to distract from weaknesses in the plot and the fact that so much of the film involves watching people type e-mails to each other. It's the eventual honesty and growth between mom and daughter that's most encouraging."
Michael Smith (Hollywood Jesus) blogs that it's "a fun frolic of a movie. … No pressure to discover a sinister or complicated plot. Just a couple of knockout beautiful women figuring life out through self- and other-inflicted hard knocks."
Mainstream critics, meanwhile, are rating this as one of the year's worst films.