Baby, when you walk out of a movie thinking, "Say, that Heather Locklear was pretty darn good," the movie's got some problems!
Locklear is indeed the best thing in "The Perfect Man," in which she's cast as a far-from-perfect woman, a woman of narcissism, frivolity, self-indulgence but also, under it all, an abiding decency and love for her children.
No, it's not Oscar material, but the longtime TV star grounds the lighter-than-air thing into some semblance of reality and gives it something about which to revolve. And boy, does it need grounding.
Otherwise "The Perfect Man" is another misbegotten attempt by someone who should know better to turn Hilary Duff into a movie star, and I can't imagine it'll do any better than the recent failures "Cinderella Story" and "Raise Your Voice." Gack, it continues: A quick look at the Internet Movie Database reveals there are no fewer than three more Duff vehicles in the works. Why, good God, why? Not to be too rough on one so young, but it's hard to see a single thing about the pleasant but eminently forgettable Duff that makes her so essential to today's Hollywood.
Anyway, the movie sets itself up like Billy Wilder with training wheels -- a cynical premise, but whose bittersweet meaning is completely contradicted by its saccharine execution in a way that would sicken Wilder. Isn't anybody grown-up supervising this stuff anymore?
Locklear and Duff, mother and daughter Jean and Holly Hamilton, are encountered in Wichita, where It Happens Again. It: Breaking Up, always hard to do. That is, perennially immature single mom Jean (Locklear) has just dumped boyfriend No. 39 or 57 or something and, as usual, needs to leave the area and Begin Anew (people in movies are always Beginning Anew, while those of us in reality are stuck for life).
Thus they're off (with a second child, oppressively adorable Aria Wallace) in a screen wipe to Brooklyn, itself oppressively adorable and scrubbed free of trash human and material and made to look as wholesome as the burb where Father Jim Andrews knew best all those years ago. Brooklyn? Come on! There, Jean gets a job as the world's most highly paid bakery clerk -- how else could they afford that three-bedroom apartment with wood floors and balcony? Daughter Holly (Duff) slips into school without a riffle of discomfort, finds friends and support and nurture. She decides she likes it; she wants to stay.
But she knows her mom will fall for a lout and in five weeks or so dump him, and off they'll go to yet another place and temporary life. Holly comes up with a plot to prevent that.
She decides to fake her mom into falling in love (via e-mail) with a phony Perfect Man, knowing that the stability and security will cultivate mom's nesting tendencies and they'll stay put. But she doesn't know what a perfect man would be, so she decides to base him on her new best friend's Uncle Ben (Chris Noth), a restaurateur or bistroteer down by the riverfront. And why is this fellow perfect? Beats me. Beats Mark Rosman, too, and he should know: He directed the movie.
Meanwhile, in the puppy-love department, Holly's being goo-goo-eyed by another adorable presence, Adam Forrest, played by Ben Feldman. To call the relationship that follows chaste is to undersell it considerably: It's sexless, hapless and hopeless. Feldman's okay in a role that asks little of him beyond benign acceptance of the Duff goddesshood.
Now and then "The Perfect Man" stirs to life but mostly it's Duff in her heavy eye makeup and tight jeans welded shut (oof!) running around acting harassed and embarrassed. The central conflict develops after about seven hours: She realizes that Ben indeed would be perfect for her mom but now she's got to contrive to keep them apart to keep the deception going. This yields one deft scene, where she must engineer a diversion when it transpires that mom and pals have headed for Uncle Ben's bistro. It's farce -- knockdown, crackerjack, fast and if not furious, at least slightly heated -- that produces a few genuine laughs.
But mostly the movie produces yawns when it's not producing awe that someone even bothered to make it. Noth, who showed some charm in "Sex and the City," seems to have forgotten all about it here, but he's not in the film that much to matter anyway. Then, the movie only marginally faces the ugliness of manipulation and deceit at its center. It suggests that the cruel trick the kid plays on her mom can be forgiven and forgotten in a single conversation, with no time necessary for healing. And in truth it has to be said the movie rewards its star with a happy ending for her ugly behavior: The plot against Mom basically works, and the lesson communicated isn't girl power but lie power. Are we sure this is what we want to tell the young adults for whom the movie was clearly intended?
The Perfect Man (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some mild sexual suggestiveness.