The movie, a dreary, dreadful comedy, thinks of itself as a real charmer, but it's like a slightly disturbed party guest whose constant bids for attention make everyone else cringe. Locklear has two daughters in the film, the younger (Aria Wallace) a preteen darling with her heart set on winning a spelling bee. But at the center of this mess is Locklear's relationship with her older daughter, the ubiquitous Hilary Duff. Their conflict derives from Locklear's habit of pulling up stakes and hauling the family across the country every time she breaks up with a man. She does this three times a year, without regard for what she sees as her daughters' stodgy desires to make friends and pursue an education. As the credits roll, she aims one of her scrumptious cakes at her now ex-boyfriend's face and embarks with her resigned girls from Wichita to Brooklyn.
All this is to say that she is a monster of egotism, if not a candidate for the asylum, but the movie treats her compulsiveness as nothing more than an annoying, but on the whole endearing, quirk. This might have worked if the part were played with enough flamboyance to make us swallow the outrageous premise. But Locklear's nonperformance here is sufficient to sink even a plausible story. Whether in the throes of what we're told is a heart-rending breakup or receiving an engagement ring from a suitor she's fond of, her face remains sphinxlike, with just the faintest hint of pertness to suggest she knows the cameras are rolling and needs an expression. So when, in some sort of bonding ritual, she and her daughters prance about their apartment to an upbeat song, her exuberance is so unexpected that it is vaguely unnerving, giving the whole scene the feel of a mental ward in revolt.
Resolved to bring an end to all this roaming, Duff hatches a plan: She concocts a secret admirer for her mother, patching together her profile of the perfect man from advice doled out by a classmate's uncle (Chris Noth of "Sex and the City"), who becomes an unwitting accomplice to the scheme. Duff starts leaving flowers at the door with unintentionally creepy, stalkerlike love notes attached. Mom laps it up. Convinced that this nonexistent lover has spotted her at her bakery, she salivates at the sight of every attractive guy who walks into the place. This, apparently, is just what Duff hoped for. She wants to keep her mother in a constant state of expectation so she won't get involved with anyone in particular, and certainly not with the boorish baker (Mike O'Malley), who immediately starts to pay court to her.
Is this conspiracy kind or cruel? Although that question gets raised late in the film in an offhand, negligent way, it's almost unfair to ask. To do so is to invoke the world of actual human emotion from which the movie remains scrupulously aloof.
In place of characters we can relate to, the movie delivers a witless, mechanical series of complications. Every 10 minutes or so, Duff's plot threatens to unravel. She unwisely encloses a photograph of Noth in one of the love letters, for instance, and so must keep her mom from bumping into him. (Why didn't she just cut out a picture from a GQ spread?) Meanwhile, Duff herself is battling, inexplicably, to keep at bay a nice, good-looking boy (Ben Feldman) who likes her.
The concluding moments pass in a blur of spelling bees, bake-offs, and looming boyfriends for all. By then you'll be wishing you'd watched a cooking show instead to find out just how much cornstarch you need to rescue a runny fondant. (PG)
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