Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! opens with a movie within the movie. It’s the 1940s, and a hunky, square-jawed soldier (played by Tad Hamilton, who’s played by Josh Duhamel) stops his car along the side of a damp road; a woman, dressed in virginal nursing whites, gets out of her car and moves toward the soldier. He tells her he thought she was attending to another officer at the hospital; she begs for his forgiveness. It is quintessential cornpone, the parody so dead-on it plays almost sincere. We see the audience for this movie, and most of the patrons weep; their tears have been jerked, and the jerks are in tears. “Gee, you think they’re gonna end up together?” asks young Piggly Wiggly manager Pete (Topher Grace) of his two female companions-slash-co-workers, one blond (Kate Bosworth) and one brunette (Ginnifer Goodwin), who sob loudest of all. The cynic is shushed; his sneer is outmatched. On screen, the soldier asks the nurse to dance to the music wafting out of the car radio. They embrace, the audience sobs, and across the screen flashes the cursive farewell, “The End.”
Before things even have begun we know how they will end; this is pure Hollywood product, slicker than the insides of an oilcan. You need see only the first two minutes of Tad Hamilton, if not merely its poster, to know what happens next … and next … and, ugh, next. Sandwiched between its bookends, the ending of the movie’s movie echoed in the final seconds of the movie’s “reality,” are sitcom setups delivered by talented actors poorly served by a stale screenplay and a drab director (the man responsible for the criminally overrated Legally Blonde) for whom no joke is too musty and no scenario is too yellowed. Will our heroine end up with the chiseled actor who jets into Podunk to sweep her off her legs up to here, or will she melt in the spindly arms of the boy who’s loved her all his life? Wait, wait … gosh, I think I’m gonna cry. Hold me?
Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! (a title so good you apparently have to shout it, perhaps to rouse the slumbering) proffers the heretofore unimaginable notion that any man, especially one so handsome as former soap star Duhamel as titular bad-boy actor Tad, could find love with Kate Bosworth, here given the name Rosalee Futch. Were this, oh, a movie directed by Todd Solondz, perhaps Rosalee Futch of West Virginia would have been a gangly, awkward, disturbed woman with a heart of gold beneath a freak-show exterior. Tad, in need of career rehabilitation, would go on his forced date with contest-winner Rosalee and find her repulsive; he would mistreat her and submit her to cruel pranks. Along the way he might receive his comeuppance, maybe a cruel beating or worse from men more handsome and famous than he, and learn to love the saintly Rosalee of West Virginia, who could then reject him and maybe kill him for being such a bastard.
Instead, Tad gets his date with the luminous, virtuous Kate Bosworth, who has been the object of cutie-pie Topher Grace’s secret affection since they were little kids. Oooh, yeah. Very dramatic. Never seen this before. Wonder how it turns out.
A tiny amount of credit must be given to writer Victor Levin, previously a writer of TV series. At least he doesn’t make Tad a complete ass unworthy of redemption or rooting for. He’s just an affable, in-over-his-head young stud stuck between early fame and premature obsolescence, which the movie’s too facile to ever acknowledge but which Duhamel tries to underscore in vain. Tad is a generic star in generic movies (they all have titles like The Road to El Dorado and A Good Man Is Hard to Find) about to pass his expiration date, much to the apprehension of his agent (Nathan Lane) and manager (Sean Hayes), both named Richard Levy. (This repeats a joke Grace made in Ocean’s Eleven, in which he had three minutes of screen time and was far better served than by the material here.) Rosalee’s decision may be a given, but it’s not the inevitable one made between a saint and a jackass, which doesn’t forgive its obviousness but does soften the blow.
What’s most frustrating about something like Tad Hamilton is how it buries a good cast beneath jokes that have been canned and stored in bomb shelters since the Cold War. The LA-flyover cross-cultural jokes don’t even seem intended to elicit laughter; they’re just wallpaper in the outhouse. Worse, Tad Hamilton sneers at pat endings and then offers its own, as if to say, “We kid because we love.” But it doesn’t love, or even like, the audience. It doesn’t muster enough energy to show any kind of feeling at all. It stays at one emotional pitch, somewhere between drowsy and disinterested. See this, and you’ll know just how it feels.