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Published: Friday, 6/17/2005

Movie review: Perfect Man **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

We meet again, Hilary Duff.

Your fiendish plot and those raccoon eyes are working their stuff. I am starting to like you.

That's you, not your movies.

The Perfect Man, which opens today, is the 7,243rd Hilary Duff vehicle since 2003, of which I have seen 7,241. It is a light romantic-comedy-teen-wish-fulfillment fantasy, full of characters who are completely delusional (even by light adolescent Duff movie standards), though it could easily have become a psychological thriller. More on that in a wink.

First, a brief history of Hilary Duff: As a recording artist, she's sold more than 12 million records, though none to me. She appears, to the naked eye, to be a 26-year-old waitress from Tallahassee but is actually 17 and widely considered the most harmless of the teen queens. She has a less-talented sibling, Haylie - the Frank Stallone of 2005.

Also, Hilary was born in Houston. Her signature role is Lizzie McGuire, of the Disney TV series of the same name. She has appeared (I'm corrected, I see) in a dozen or so films, including Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel, which shoots this summer. She was in A Cinderella Story (2004), Raise Your Voice (2004), and The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003).

She's had a public war of words with Lindsay Lohan (over a boyfriend thingee) and performed at President Bush's second inaugural concert. She has a Target clothing line, Stuff by Hilary Duff. She is 5-foot-4, takes a correspondence course through Harvard, and once had a dog she named Little Dog Duff.

Fan club duties fulfilled.

At this point it's safe to say some of her affirmations are becoming endearing - yes, I do believe in the revitalizing power of a hot fudge sundae. As for her quirks: She tugs at her sweater sleeves. She is forever through with love. Her eyes are caked with several feet of mascara. She is an excellent physical comic, not a camera hog, and nothing seems beneath her. She doesn't appear to be a diva. She's a professional teen (and I'd love to see her cast in the inevitable, campy remake of Beach Blanket Bingo).

So, how dorky is Hilary Duff?

Well, in The Perfect Man, for example, the students at her Brooklyn high school still say "cyberspace." And while the rest of her classmates are busy acting out and passing notes about the opposite sex, Hilary has a mission - a truly twisted mission:

Create a secret admirer for her lonely, possibly insane mother.

Duff plays optimistic Holly. She has been moved around the country for years by her mother, Jean (Heather Locklear). Invariably Jean shacks up with men who are beneath her or two-time her (though there is no sign of physical abuse), and when the inevitable happens, Jean packs up Holly and her myopic sister (Aria Wallace) and they move to a new city and find a new man.

Once moved to Brooklyn and living in a classic movie apartment (large, brick walls, two baths, $2,500 a month on a $10-an-hour salary), Locklear goes to work at a bakery and meets a schlub named Lenny (Mike O'Malley) who shows her the attention she doesn't get normally because she is a hideous monster who looks a lot like Heather Locklear. He invites her to see a Styx cover band. She accepts - and even considers marrying him after a single date.

Heather Locklear and Lenny.

I said, Heather Locklear.

A TV icon but a late starter to movies, she holds the big screen with at least as much flustered charm as a Sandra Bullock, and certainly more grace. But really, somebody should have told her she looks like Heather Locklear, and though she is 44 now, she has a Diane Lane-thing going. The lines creeping into her face give her an intelligence it might have lacked when she was young and bubbly. You don't believe she would go for a Lenny, or the guy who dumps her in the beginning of the movie. You don't believe she is that desperate. She certainly isn't looking for a man so feverishly for income purposes.

Anyway, tired of moving, Holly snaps and decides to play Cyrano to her unsuspecting mother. She also gets her own love interest, Adam (Ben Feldman). Together they construct a perfect man to keep her mother busy. They send flowers and write letters. Holly asks Adam to write e-mail in the guise of this nonexistent man.

"Make him seem real," she says - which, with only a change in pitch, could be a line from a David Lynch thriller. Naturally, there is an actual perfect man in the shadows: He's played by Chris Noth of Sex and the City (but looks kind of pale and exhausted). He owns a restaurant that employs Carson Kressley of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a bartender; Kressley, overexposed two years ago, preens and throws around advice and catty one-liners and is fast becoming a one-man gay minstrel show.

What I sort of like in a perverse way about The Perfect Man is how it seems to arrive from an alternate universe where America skipped from 1956 straight into 2005; the two decades are uncannily interchangeable for film purposes.

Hilary Duff movies are bushy-tailed and clueless in a fashion less like other adolescent fantasies than '50s educational films about hygiene and prom; they're John Waters flicks without the disgusting bits. And they never do solve their one nagging flaw: Duff's characters are remarkably self-possessed for teens but not enough to recognize the sitcoms they inhabit.

"Maybe the perfect man isn't real," Holly tells her mom. "But the perfect you, is." Holly, if she doesn't listen, a word of advice:

Emancipation.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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