For Better and Worse 

Debra Messing courts movie fame in "The Wedding Date."

The movie lunges into the action fast. In a move characteristic of the film's narrative shortcuts, New Yorker Debra Messing ("Will & Grace") breathlessly brings us up to speed by spilling her guts to a total stranger. She's off to her younger sister's wedding in England, where her raffish ex is the best man. Mortified by her boyfriendlessness, she's withdrawn $6,000 from her 401(k) to hire a top-of-the-line gigolo (Dermot Mulroney) to accompany her. An Ivy League graduate with a fiercely chiseled abdomen, her escort turns out to be the embodiment of gentlemanly aplomb and savoir-faire, fully equipped with a bottomless reserve of empowering pop psych one-liners. He is, in short, every woman's dream, or so this film would have us believe.

Within moments of his arrival in London, the female population of the nation lies prostrate at Mulroney's feet. Nevertheless, his gaze remains steadfastly fixed on Messing throughout, at first because of his conscientious professionalism, then because of something more. Warily, they drift toward love, as Messing deals with the obstacles to her fulfillment: her feelings for her ex, her fear of relationships and her schoolmarmish notion that she shouldn't get emotionally involved with a prostitute.

At a time when the boundaries between television and film are more porous than ever, it is perhaps inevitable that Messing would enjoy a Hollywood outing. It's only a shame that she was not allowed to cut her teeth on a more modest, more adventurous role. Without the constant reinforcement of a tame studio audience guffawing at her every twitch of distress, her limited bag of tricks quickly grows old. The fault is not entirely hers. The screenplay offers nothing more than the mini-crises and instantaneous redemptions suited to the half-hour television format. Messing is fun to watch, but "The Wedding Date" demonstrates why we're not asked to put up with sitcom characters for 90 minutes at a stretch.

Screenwriter Dana Fox doesn't do Mulroney any favors, either. When he isn't casting knowing glances in Messing's direction or flashing bits and pieces of his anatomy, he's sending her into raptures with comments like "Forget the past, forget the pain and remember what an incredible woman you are." In order to scale this Everest of tripe, he sends his voice into its plummy depths in an apparent attempt to channel the late Barry White. But not even his character's diploma in comparative literature from Brown has adequately prepared him for this task.

There's more, of course, including the obligatory tour of Messing's messed-up, well-heeled family, composed of a WASPish mom (enjoyably played by Holland Taylor), a smug, stupid, about-to-be-wed half sister (Amy Adams), and a stepfather (Peter Egan), all affability and soft-spoken wisdom. Moreover, in order to spin the tale out to feature length, dark secrets that threaten to derail the planned nuptials are contrived, even if their connection to the main plot is at best tangential.

Naturally it's all nonsense. But every now and then, you are struck by the feeling that something awfully amusing and touching is going on. When that happens, you can't quite help thinking you are actually being entertained. ** S


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