“Why can’t I breathe whenever I think about you?” The use of Liz Phair’s most recent single as a means to advertise Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! is a strangely appropriate match. (And frankly, promoters don’t often get such matches right, as the focus tends to be on trendy immediacy rather than actual suitability.) Phair’s bouncy track has to do with the combined physicality and metaphor of romance. You know — the combination of thrill and oppression you feel when wowed by a new (or especially potent) amorous possibility.
Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! is similarly about the intersections of corporeal effect and cultural illusion, the ways that romance is packaged for consumption, in particular for that most supposedly gullible demographic, young girls. Directed by Robert Luketic (who made the relatively light-touchish Legally Blonde), the movie doesn’t boast brilliant insight regarding this process, but it does acknowledge its complexities, which is more than most recent youth-oriented romantic comedies can say.
Tad of the title (Josh Duhamel) is a movie star, arrogant and pretty, handled by a one-two punch team, a manager named Robert Levy (Sean Hayes) and an agent named Robert Levy (Nathan Lane). Following some bad behaviors on sets and off, Tad the prize property appears to be fading prematurely from the industry radar screen, the Roberts Levy come up with a terrific promotional scheme to get a certain director thinking about him again — a contest to win a date with Tad.
The winner is 22-year-old (and much younger-seeming) Rosalee Futch (the alarmingly flawless Kate Bosworth), a clerk at the Piggly Wiggly in Fraziers Bottom, West Virginia and major Tad Hamilton fan. Supported wholeheartedly by her “plain” friend Cathy Feely (Ginnifer Goodwin) and rather less enthusiastically by her boss and other best Pete (Topher Grace), Rosalee boards a plane for Hollywood. At which point, barely able to contain the secret love he’s had for her all his life, Pete warns her to “guard your carnal treasure!” She smiles, briefly and encouragingly, then turns to face the new future before her, via the glam and glitz of La-La Land.
The evening is more or less enchanting, complete with a limo, champagne, a nice dress and makeup, and photographers galore. When Rosalee decides not to sleep with Tad on the night of the date, but instead chastely kisses him goodnight and heads home the next day, he’s stricken. And for a minute, Tad thinks she might be just what he needs to, as he puts it, “feed my soul.” And so, still waiting for a call from that director of the movie he wants desperately to make, he decamps from L.A. to West Virginia, where he appears at the Piggly Wiggly’s backroom doorway, fully expecting Rosalee to drop everything and have another “date,” this time, lunch.
While Cathy is beside herself with excitement and celebrity worship — offering to service Tad if he so desires — Pete is rather differently nonplussed by the actor’s incursion into his turf. Though he agrees, reluctantly, to let Rosalee leave for lunch, he’s also concerned that Tad has less than honorable intentions (When Rosalee reports that Tad only wants some of her small-town goodness to “rub off on him,” Pete retorts, “He wants your ass to rub off on him”). And so goes the back-and-forth, in which Pete must decide whether to “fight” for the girl of his dreams, or let her make her own decision, as ill-informed as he believes that decision to be.
This “respect” for Rosalee doesn’t stop Pete from confronting Tad, too, as when he informs him, “She is more of a treasure than you can possibly know,” just before he agrees to back off from their particular competition. While Tad has the wherewithal to buy a farm, a car, and other impressive accoutrements, Pete still tries to keep up, challenging his rival to, say, a wood-chopping contest. When they remove their shirts, slender Pete looks at once intimidated and plucky (and Grace’s performance helps this moment from becoming totally cloying).
As the boys “work out” their reciprocal anxieties (Tad’s obviously submerged beneath all kinds of money and clout), Rosalee must make her own life-altering decision. Understandably flattered by Tad’s attentions, and unaware of Pete’s unstated feelings for her, she’s also wanting to please her apparently bored-silly dad (Gary Cole), who wears a “Project Greenlight” tee-shirt in his efforts to impress Tad. Right when she’s imagining she might be “in love” with this whirlwind of a romantic figure, Tad “steps up.” Or rather, he’s so completely unselfconscious and utterly selfish that he thinks minute by minute what is most useful for his career, that he offers to take her back with him to Hollywood when the movie deal finally comes through — he is, of course, entirely used to having his cake and eating it too.
Like Legally Blonde, Win a Date showcases an independent-minded girl whose naïveté and credulity make her admirable, and whose insights into “human nature” make her at least somewhat daunting. And so, comedy is premised not only on her good sense, but also on her seeming childishness; she’s so sweet and the town is so small that all her neighbors know about and wish her well on her “dates” (including the local cop who catches her making out with Tad in his rental car), and when she gets nervous, she scrambles her syntax (“This is my Cathy friend!” she exclaims, by way of introduction). As adorable as such explicit affection for “moral simplicity” and “traditional values” may be, it can also be annoying. The girl is 22, not 12.
Okay, so it’s only a movie. But you can’t help but wonder what’s going on just below its commercially “safe” surface. Again, not unlike Legally Blonde, this is a fairly gay “straight” movie. Here the subtext is not even so subtle as Bruiser’s orientation. The most intriguing romantic complication in Win a Date is the one least explored, having to do with the erection of heterosexual romance as the only possibility available for mass-market consumers. The two Roberts Levy are delightfully flamboyant (even by intertextual associations, as Jack follows Hayes wherever he goes, as Lane’s entire oeuvre follows him), and the two performers are energetic and inspired. You can’t help but wish they had more screen time, even as Pete and Tad occasionally reveal, in their mutual contests, a certain homosocial vigor.