“Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!” is this year’s “Bring It On.” Both films take a genre normally expected to suck — in this case the teen romantic-comedy — and skew it, cleverly mocking it while indulging in its conventions. I respect a movie that can have its cake and eat it, too, and “Win a Date” does it.
Directed by Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”), “Win a Date” opens with three friends watching an old-fashioned romance film starring Tad Hamilton (Josh Duhamel), a handsome actor with the boy-next-door charm of a young Tom Hanks. As the movie reaches its melodramatic climax, the guy in the audience rolls his eyes and asks what kind of emotional cripple would find this malarkey believable. His two female friends, meanwhile, are sobbing. And the chasm between men and women grows ever-wider.
The guy is Pete Monash (Topher Grace), a 22-year-old supermarket manager in rural Frasier’s Bottom, W. Va., who spends his off hour in a jovial platonic threesome with Rosalee Futch (Kate Bosworth) and Cathy Feely (Ginnifer Goodwin), both also Piggly-Wiggly employees. They have been friends forever, but Pete is secretly in love with Rosalee. He lacks only the courage to tell her.
Cut to Hollywood, where Tad Hamilton — whose offscreen lifestyle is closer to Charlie Sheen than Tom Hanks — is about to lose a major role due to his tabloid-worthy shenanigans. His manager and agent (Sean Hayes and Nathan Lane, both amusing) suggest a publicity stunt to improve his image. And so a drawing is held to choose one lucky American girl to win the titular date with the titular Tad Hamilton. That girl, of course, is Rosalee.
She is whisked to Hollywood, wined and dined, given the royal treatment, and has a pleasant time with Tad, who is fascinated to meet someone from a small town who knows who she is and what she’s doing. Before you know it, he’s followed her back to Frasier’s Bottom to be her friend and gain some insight into her peace of mind — frustrating Rosalee, who would rather he be her boyfriend, and frustrating Pete, who would rather he just get the hell out.
Much of the film’s abundant humor is owed to the witty and accessible performances by the leads, but we will single out Topher Grace, whose years of leading “That ’70s Show” have honed his skills remarkably. He has pitch-perfect delivery on every line, earning laughs even on throwaway, in-passing dialogue.
He is matched for skill by the radiant Kate Bosworth, whose role is less funny but just as enjoyable. Ginnifer Goodwin, one of the few likable characters in “Mona Lisa Smile,” has ample opportunity to share her effusive wit here, and Josh Duhamel very ably satirizes the life of a Hollywood pretty-boy.
I also laughed quite a bit at Gary Cole as Rosalee’s showbiz-obsessed father, and was surprised to see the skanky yet wise bartender (Kathryn Hahn) turn out to play a more important role in the film’s resolution than one would expect.
What separates this film from its teen romantic-comedy brethren is that it entertains without pandering to its audience. Its parody of Hollywood is sharp enough to be funny without being so full of inside jokes that its target demographic won’t get it. Its characters lie to each other, the way they usually do in these films, but the lies happen naturally and are resolved far more realistically than usual. The witty script by TV writer Victor Levin gets romantic at just the right moments, and actually succeeds at some of it: I can’t remember the last romantic comedy I saw where there was EVER any suspense over which guy the girl would choose, but here, both Tad and Pete seem like worthy choices at various times. And so “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!” is a swell surprise indeed.
B+ (1 hr., 35 min.; )