A relatively upscale cast struggles to pump life into "The Third Wheel," a romantic comedy about a sweet-natured guy whose plans for a perfect night with the girl of his dreams are sabotaged by an eccentric intruder. With a little more wit and invention, this might have been a fun date-from-hell scenario along the lines of "After Hours."

A relatively upscale cast struggles to pump life into “The Third Wheel,” a romantic comedy about a sweet-natured guy whose plans for a perfect night with the girl of his dreams are sabotaged by an eccentric intruder. With a little more wit and invention, this might have been a fun date-from-hell scenario along the lines of “After Hours.” But it quickly succumbs to soft scripting, lack of rhythm and poorly drawn characters. Pushed back repeatedly on Miramax’s schedule and still awaiting a U.S. release date, the film opened in Italy to limp business Friday, redubbed “Duet for Three” by local distrib Eagle Pictures. Name talent involved should provide commercial redemption as a video title.

Shot in summer 1999, the modest-looking production was exec produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Script was written by Jay Lacopo, who starred in the Affleck-directed 1993 short “I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney.” Maybe Affleck finds this guy funny, but others may disagree based on his script and his acting in an irritating key role. The writer-star even gets a featured rap number in the end credits with no connection to anything that’s come before.

All-round nice guy Stanley (Luke Wilson), for reasons never quite made clear, hasn’t had a date in a long time. The arrival in his office of hotshot administrator Diana (Denise Richards) gives Stanley a romantic goal, and he finally succeeds in asking her out after much egging on by office colleague Michael (Affleck).

Michael and the entire office staff monitor Stanley’s progress during the date, placing bets on his chances of physical contact. But while things start out promisingly, the couple are hijacked by Phil (Lacopo), a homeless guy hit by Stanley’s car. Phil makes it his single-minded mission to play Good Samaritan in romantically challenged Stanley’s quest to win Diana, but instead provokes one disaster after another.

Given the inconsistency with which Phil and other characters are developed, the closing revelation of his real m.o. provides no great surprise. Nor does the cynicism of his self-serving agenda bring any edge to the pedestrian proceedings. Lacopo has an amusing moment or two but too often grates, playing Phil as a well-meaning dolt but also a leechlike obsessive. One scene in particular in which Phil engages a busload of passengers in a childlike sing-along game is excruciatingly cute.

Wilson keeps the material afloat to a degree with his relaxed charm. But that same natural ease seems at odds with Stanley’s supposed awkwardness with women. Richards has even less to work with, her business savvy and unexpected sweetness conveyed more through other people’s perceptions of her than anything communicated by the character herself. However, the couple has more appeal than the lackluster material, and the predictably rosy outcome will make this a serviceable enough date movie for undemanding audiences.

Affleck registers smugly in an ill-conceived supporting role, while an unbilled Damon appears briefly as Diana’s hostile ex-boyfriend.

Despite his background as a standup comic and TV presenter, director Jordan Brady — who ostentatiously acknowledges his own work with a poster for his first feature, “Dill Scallion,” plastered across the side of a bus — brings uneven timing and little personality to the comedy, uninterestingly shot in anonymous L.A. locations.

The Third Wheel

Production

A Miramax Films release of an HSI-Tomorrow Films production in association with LivePlanet. Produced by Chris Moore, Stavros Merjos, Adam Rosenfelt, Chad Snopek. Executive producers, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Yoram Pelman. Co-producer, Louis G. Friedman. Directed by Jordan Brady.

Crew

Screenplay, Jay Lacopo. Camera (color), Jonathan Brown; editors, Paul Seydor, Sam Citron; music, Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman; production designer, Cosmas A. Demetriou; art director, Gregory R. Branson; set decorators, Christopher Carlson, Herman Camacho; costume designer, Leesa Evans; sound (Dolby Digital), Cameron D. Hamza; associate producers, Jeff Balis, Marc Schaberg; assistant director, Carey Dietrich; casting; Michelle Morris-Gertz. Reviewed on videocassette, Rome, June 3, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Stanley - Luke Wilson
Diana - Denise Richards
Phil - Jay Lacopo
Michael - Ben Affleck
Kevin - Matt Damon

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