Let me begin this review by telling you what "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!" is not, because it's not what it looks like.
"Win a Date" is not one of those insipid romantic comedies in which the girl is in love with a jerk but is too dumb to realize it, and the shy guy who's been in love with her from afar all his life has to drum up the chivalrous courage to stop her from doing something foolish, like getting married.
It's not a movie that will make teenage girls swoon while their dates roll their eyes, and director Robert Luketic lets you know it right out of the gate by mocking that very style of movie. It's not a facile comedy that half-heartedly recycles old plots for a target audience that doesn't know any better.
It's not "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," "Get Over It," "Boys and Girls," "Down to You," "Whatever It Takes," "Drive Me Crazy," "Never Been Kissed," "Can't Hardly Wait" or "She's All That."
Instead, "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton" takes the tiresomely familiar notion of an inhibited Mr. Right fighting a handsome, hollow Mr. Wrong for a beautiful, sweet-hearted girl caught between them, and gives these characters more character than they've had since the genre's 1940s hay day of Betty Grable musicals.
Irresistibly buoyant Kate Bosworth ("Blue Crush," "Wonderland") plays Rosalee, a perky Piggly Wiggly cashier from itty bitty Fraizers Bottom, West Virginia, who despite being 22 years old has a teenybopper's Tiger-Beat crush on hack Hollywood superstar Tad Hamilton (played by the impossibly handsome Josh Duhamel of TV's short-lived "Las Vegas"). Oh-so-dreamy Tad makes the kind of soft-focus epic romances that set Rosalee's heart aflutter but send her best friend Pete ("That '70s Show's" Topher Grace) into Pavlovian jags of snarky remarks whenever she drags him to the movies.
Since Pete has been secretly in love with Rosalee all their lives, his defense-mechanism sarcasm goes into overdrive when she wins a contest to fly to L.A. for a night on the town with her favorite hunk, who needs a boy-next-door image pick-me-up after he's caught "drinking, driving, smoking, leering and groping at the same time" by a tabloid photographer.
But Pete's bench-warming amore is really put to the test when Tad Hamilton abandons his superstar lifestyle and follows Rosalee home to court her positive influence after her wide-eyed naiveté inadvertently exposes him to his own shallowness -- much to the horror of his agent and manager (Nathan Lane and Sean Hayes, who make a snappy comedy team).
Luketic (doing penance for the lowbrow obviousness of "Legally Blonde") and writer Victor Levin (an alum of "Mad About You" and HBO's "Dream On") toy many times with the savvy viewer's expectations. I can't tell you how many times I was wrong about where I thought the movie was going -- even if its ultimate finale is inevitable. But the twist of having the movie star genuinely trying to emerge from his own narcissism brings a refreshing comedic sparkle to "Win a Date."
Bosworth slowly and nimbly reveals Rosalee to be much brighter and more levelheaded than she seems. Grace has brilliant comedic timing as he takes Pete's scene-stealing snideness to the edge of unlikability before he lets down his guard -- which he does, unexpectedly, to Tad instead of Rosalee. "Did you know that she has six different smiles?" he says in near-heartbreak as he's about to give up all hope of winning the girl's heart, even though he's never actually tried to tell her how he feels.
Even the peripheral characters -- Rosalee's best friend Cathy (Ginnifer Goodwin, "Mona Lisa Smile"), Rosalee's amusingly starstruck dad (Gary Cole) and a biker-chick bartender (Kathryn Hahn) who has her own painfully unrequited crush on Pete -- have more depth than the leads in most movies fashioned from the romantic comedy mold this flick tries to break.
But it's Duhamel who rises most deftly to the occasion in the picture's hardest role. He has to reveal the emerging, likable earnestness of Tad Hamilton as he genuinely seeks to deepen his soul, while remaining unfortunately, inescapably shallow. Tad truly wants to win Rosalee's heart too, but he just can't do it honestly (he tries to seduce her with lines from his own movies) because he's hardwired into his poster-thin personality.
"Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!" is no romantic comedy classic. As with all movies of its ilk, too many narrative hiccups are glossed over and too much cluelessness is required of its characters. (If it's so obvious to the audience and the bartender that Pete loves Rosalee, why can't she or her best friend see it?) But even with such shortcomings, this funny, charming flick is certainly a substantial, comedically self-aware step above the vast majority of its genre competition.