Holly (Hilary Duff) has it rough. As she puts it in her blog, “Girl on the Move,” she has never lived in one place for an entire school year. Instead, the 16-year-old has spent most of her life traipsing across the U.S. after her mom, a baker named Jean (Heather Locklear) who just can’t meet a good man. And every time she’s disappointed, she moves, with daughters Holly and Zoe (Aria Wallace) in tow.
Think about this: the film’s premise is that Heather Locklear can’t get a decent date.
According to The Perfect Man‘s illogic, Jean is not even a little picky. And so she only goes out with schlubs and cheats. The latest breakup, which occurs as The Perfect Man begins, has them driving from Ohio to New York City, where Jean finds work at a busy bakery owned by an old friend, Dolores (Kym Whitley). While Jean meets and envies affianced contentedly coworker Gloria (Caroline Rhea), the girls head off to yet another new school. Zoe’s instantly invited to enter the spelling bee, but knows they’ll never last the two months before it’s scheduled. Holly gets to meet the coolest misfit in school, Amy (Vanessa Lengies), not to mention the prettiest lonely boy/comic artist, Adam (Ben Feldman), both of whom try immediately to “be friends,” only to be put off by the attachment-phobic Holly. “First days at a new school are always the same,” she blogs, perched in her bedroom window by the soon-to-be-convenient fire escape: you feel like you’ve landed on another planet.
Though Holly believes her planet this time is as abysmal as those before, she’s actually caught up in a coming-of-age-romantic-comedy that means to twist her into very different directions. This starts with Lenny (Mike O’Malley), the bread man down at Dolores’ bakery, all lumpy and fumbling and fronting self-confidence. His first line for Jean is to ask her whether she was hurt by her fall from heaven; worse, for their first date he takes her for a ride in his Trans Am, to see a Styx cover band. No good, no good, intuits Holly, who lurches into action with the help of her handy new best friend Amy, or rather, Amy’s uncle Ben (Chris Noth), who observes not-quite-offhandedly that a woman loves orchids, because they make her feel like “:she’s floating on a cloud of possibility” (poetry is not precisely Ben’s forte).
Before you know it, Holly is buying mom flowers and pretending they’re from “the perfect man,” hoping to distract her from Mr. “Lady, when you’re with me, I’m smiling.” Holly knows the plan is dicey (she blogs: “I know what I’m doing is borderline delusional,” um, especially if mom were to read her blog) but she can’t seem to help herself. And soon enough, the whole business skids into explicit strangeness when Holly determines she must escalate from sending flowers and writing letters to writing emails to her mother, taking the screen name Brooklyn Boy and pretending to be a fabulous restaurateur, which just happens to be Ben’s occupation (as Holly observes of his bistro, “I can’t even afford to pee in a place like this!”).
In one of the film’s several jaw-droppingly near-incestuous-seeming moments, Jean and Holly play like they’ve landed in a Pillow Talk-ish split screen, only facing one another while plunking on their keyboards rather than playing sudsy-footsy against their frames/bathroom walls. That Holly is borrowing Adam’s computer to run this ruse only makes the deceit weirder, as the camera shows him gazing on her from across his bedroom and falls in love with the nape of her lovely neck, as she’s plunking.
While this situation seems perverse—boy watches girl court mother—you might also dismiss it as a product of your own edgy imagination, except that the movie keeps pushing the point. A series of predictable misunderstandings later, Jean has yet to discover Holly’s tangled web weaving, and so she demonstrates where Holly might have picked up the idea hat lying online is a fine idea: she answers Holly’s email from Adam in an effort to mend their briefly strained romance. This as Holly slumbers in the background, in her own bed, hovering in the frame over Jean’s shoulder. Yes, Adam is something of the perfect boy-man, in a bland, too-good-to-be-true sort of way, but still. Jean is supposed to be the mom here.
And if all this urchy good fun just isn’t enough, The Perfect Man coughs up some more gender-mucking hairballs in the form of Queer Eye‘s Carson Kressley, here cast as Ben’s randy bartender. Foofing his hair, leering at construction workers and junior execs with equal energy, he seems designed to make everyone else here look comparatively “straight.” But really, he’s the only one of the many wannabe lovers with a sense of who he is and what he wants.
While the comedy maintains an antic, if slightly too slow, rhythm, most of what happens in The Perfect Man depends on a gargantuan suspension of disbelief, regarding Jean’s self-involved hard-up-ness (she embarrasses Holly by announcing her singleness at a school assembly) and Ben’s utter availability, not so much to Jean (he doesn’t meet her until movie’s end), but to Holly, who drops in on him at home, at the restaurant, and eventually, at a wedding, as if he’s her romantic object in a more ponderously formulaic film.
Still The Perfect Man is formulaic. It is, after all, a Hilary Duff movie, with Locklear along for the ride. This is too bad, because the relationship between Holly and Jean is the film’s most compelling, and it’s surrounded by so much formulaic filler that it suffocates. At the same time, while Holly’s relationships with her high school friends Amy and Adam are potentially intricate and interesting in their own ways, the film has to rush through any potentially illuminating moments in order to get back to the girl-lies-to-her-mother plot. By the same token, Jean is reduced to backdrop for Holly’s evolution, rather than her most important relationship. Worse, the film essentially locks out Locklear, who, despite being a type unto herself, she’s also a deft actor with excellent timing. The Perfect Man never allows her enough time on screen to show off.