Legions of loyal 'N Sync fans likely will line up to buy, buy, buy tickets for "On the Line," even though only two-fifths of the immensely popular boy band have prominent roles in this yummy-bubblegummy romantic comedy. But it's problematic as to whether Miramax can build on target aud to attract demographics other than pre-teen and adolescent girls.

Legions of loyal ‘N Sync fans likely will line up to buy, buy, buy tickets for “On the Line,” even though only two-fifths of the immensely popular boy band have prominent roles in this yummy-bubblegummy romantic comedy. But it’s problematic as to whether Miramax can build on target aud to attract demographics other than pre-teen and adolescent girls. Pic is a perfectly harmless, often humorous, featherweight confection — think “Serendipity” re-imagined as a teen-skewing Saturday morning sitcom — with a decent chance to score modestly respectable B.O. coin before reaching the greener fields of homevid.

Certainly, ‘N Syncer Lance Bass could have done a lot worse in picking the right launching pad for his feature acting debut. (Pic also is first product of his production company, A Happy Place.) Boyishly handsome singer makes a mostly affable impression as Kevin Gibbons, a minor functionary at a Chicago ad firm who’s chronically unable to “seal the deal” in his romantic pursuits.

Amusing prologue shows Kevin as a high school band lead vocalist who turns tongue-tied and flop-sweaty when he tries to serenade the girl of his dreams. Flashfoward to present day, and pic finds Mr. Shy Guy hasn’t really changed all that much.

At 26, Kevin still hangs out with three former schoolmates: Rod (fellow ‘N Syncer Joey Fatone), a bar-band singer with dreams of a song-writing career; Eric (hip-hop comic GQ), a manic underachiever; and Randy (James Bulliard), a bookish type who might have been played by James Spader 15 or so years ago. Buddies urge Kevin to loosen up, take more chances and, while he’s at it, chase a few ladies now and then. Trouble is, Kevin is too milquetoasty for his own good.

Fortune smiles on the pleasant young man late one afternoon when he encounters a vivacious young woman while riding the El train. As they chat, Kevin discovers Abbey (Emmanuelle Chriqui) shares his deep appreciation for Al Green, as well as his eccentric ability to name every U.S. president. Obviously, they’re made for each other. But he can’t quite work up the nerve to ask for her name and number, and manages only a melancholy grimace as she appears to walk out of his life.

Forever? Not hardly.

Kevin finally starts to forge a backbone for himself after a haughtily ambitious co-worker (Tamala Jones) swipes his idea for a Reebok ad campaign. Sufficiently fired up to make an atypically bold move, he plasters much of greater metropolitan Chicago with attention-grabbing flyers with his name and number, hoping to somehow connect with the woman who got away.

News of his desperate search spreads throughout the city, thanks in part to coverage by a cynical newspaper columnist (Dan Montgomery) with a long-standing grudge against Kevin.

Unfortunately, the publicity only serves to generate lots of calls from the wrong women. Even more unfortunately, Kevin’s buddies volunteer to screen the respondents by making dates with any female who phones. When Abbey finally does try to contact Kevin, she winds up meeting the boorish Eric. She is not impressed.

Based on a well-received short written by screenwriters Eric Aronson and Paul Stanton, who expanded their original script to feature length, “On the Line” clickity-clacks down the track at a brisk clip under the energetic direction of Eric Bross (“Restaurant”). Plot relies heavily on mixed connections and fortuitous coincidences, much like “Serendipity.” So much so, in fact, that you can’t help wondering if Miramax honchos ever doubted the wisdom of releasing two such similar romantic comedies within weeks of each other.

Only major shortcoming is an overall inconsistency of tone, in performances as well as storytelling. Scenes pitched at the frenetic pace of a vintage “Monkees” episode alternate with more traditional youth-comedy hijinx and sentimental hokum. On one end of the thesp scale, Jerry Stiller lays on the schmaltz as an avuncular mailroom supervisor; on the other, Dave Foley nibbles at the scenery with his hypertense caricature of an ad agency boss.

CQ leans toward the cartoonish extreme, as does Bon Jovi vet Richie Sambora as a self-absorbed rock star. But ‘N Sync singer Fatone demonstrates appreciably more restraint, even while playing for easy laughs. Jones earns credit for gracefully maneuvering through some tricky shifts of character development.

Femme lead Chriqui is appealing and persuasive. Better still, she looks more like a real person — that is, like someone you might actually meet on the El — than your standard-issue glossy Hollywood beauty. In fact, one of the nicer things about “On the Line” is across-the-line casting of actors who, while undeniably attractive, hardly qualify as pinup material. Of course, ‘N Sync fans might dispute that assessment, but never mind.

For the record: Fellow ‘N Syncers Justin Timberlake and Chris Kirkpatrick make fleeting appearances in a “Behind the Scenes” mock-documentary near the end. (Joshua Chasez, fifth member of the boy band, evidently passed on the project.) A couple of the band’s tunes are included in the chart-bound soundtrack. But pic’s musical highlight is a closing-credits production number with Al Green leading the cast in an exuberant new version of “Let’s Stay Together.”

On the Line

Production

A Miramax Films release of a Tapestry Films production in association with A Happy Place. Produced by Wendy Thorlakson, Rich Hull, Peter J. Abrams, Robert L. Levy. Executive producers, Johnny Wright, Lance Bass, Andrew Panay, Bob Osher, Jeremy Kramer, Robbie Brenner. Co-producers, Joe Anderson, Far Shariat. Co-executive producers, Louise Rosner, Greg Silverman. Directed by Eric Bross. Screenplay, Eric Aronson, Paul Stanton.

Crew

Camera (DeLuxe color), Michael Bernard; editor, Eric A. Sears; music, Stewart Copeland; music supervisors, Randy Spendlove, Jonathan McHugh; production designer, Andrew Jackness; art director, Brandt Gordon; costume designer, Margaret Mohr; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Robert Carr; casting, Nancy Nayor. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Oct. 18, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Kevin Gibbons - Lance Bass
Rod - Joey Fatone
Abbey - Emmanuelle Chriqui
Eric - GQ
Randy - James Bulliard
Al Green - Himself
Jackie - Tamala Jones
Mick Silver - Richie Sambora
Julie - Amanda Foreman
Brady - Dan Montgomery
Higgins - David Foley
Nathan - Jerry Stiller
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