Nn intriguingly racy premise -- a woman hires a top-of-the-line male escort to pose as her significant other -- plays out to listless, unsatisfying effect in "The Wedding Date." Long hailed as the heiress apparent to Lucille Ball for her work on "Will & Grace," Debra Messing is clearly being primed here for the sort of romantic-comedy stardom lavished on Julia Roberts.

An intriguingly racy premise — a woman hires a top-of-the-line male escort to pose as her significant other — plays out to listless, unsatisfying effect in “The Wedding Date.” Long hailed as the heiress apparent to Lucille Ball for her work on “Will & Grace,” Debra Messing is clearly being primed here for the sort of romantic-comedy stardom lavished on Julia Roberts. Yet while comparisons to the similarly hooker-themed “Pretty Woman” are inevitable, perhaps even intended, this wan Universal release looks unlikely to match that pic’s B.O. returns or infectious crowd-pleaser status.

Originally conceived under the much better title “Something Borrowed,” this adaptation of Elizabeth Young’s novel “Asking for Trouble” starts with a classic opposites-attract scenario. Anxious, high-strung Kat Ellis (Messing) desperately forks over a plane ticket so that devastatingly slick Nick Mercer (Dermot Mulroney), reputedly one of the smoothest operators in New York, can accompany her to London for her sister’s impending nuptials, passing himself off as her boyfriend.

A Yank black sheep who hasn’t seen her Blighty-based family in two years, Kat hopes to make a good impression on her critical mother, Bunny (Holland Taylor); her voice-of-sanity father, Victor (Peter Egan); and her competitive half-sister, Amy (Amy Adams), who is about to wed Edward (Jack Davenport). She’s also dying to save face in front of her ex-boyfriend, Jeffrey (Jeremy Sheffield), who just so happens to be the best man — and possibly make him jealous.

The happy recipient of $6,000 cash, Nick plays along with the charade, pretending to be a therapist and turning on the charm full force. While he draws the line at sex (that, he warns, will cost extra), he thinks nothing of parading in front of Kat stark naked, or of dispensing advice on how to loosen up, or whispering sweet nothings to beef up her self-esteem. In short, he’s the perfect guy to save her from her twitchy, self-conscious, neurotically over-apologetic self.

It sounds nice on paper, but as laid out in Dana Fox’s meandering screenplay, this business-arrangement-turned-real-deal unfolds with a lack of focus and energy. Kat is a too-inconsistent comic creation — wary and prudish one second, breezy and reckless the next — and Messing’s likable but uneven perf is a series of individually appealing moments that don’t always connect. Mulroney comes off as a touch aloof, as though vaguely bored.

It’s not that Messing and Mulroney lack chemistry so much as the fact that Fox and helmer Clare Kilner, misjudge their storytelling priorities. They lavish too much time on a subplot involving the sleazy Jeffrey, who is floated as a possible rival for Kat’s affections (with Sheffield’s improbable charm at odds with the way the character is written). Key plot points, like the couple’s consummation of their relationship and the subsequent emotional fallout, are introduced and then dropped without explanation.

And aside from one predictable scene where Kat lashes out at the sleaziness of Nick’s profession, pic doesn’t explore, as “Pretty Woman” did, either the tensions or the comic possibilities of embarking on an actual relationship with a paid prostitute. Instead, the story veers into a series of melodramatic third-act revelations that assume a deeper investment in the peripheral characters than most auds will be prepared to make.

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, “Date” feels trimmed down to its bare bones at the frequent expense of logic and narrative clarity. Even the talented ensemble feels under-utilized, especially Egan and Holland as Kat’s parents and Sarah Parish, raucous in the role of Kat’s bawdy chum, TJ.

Tech contributions are more than adequate, with cinematographer Oliver Curtis tackling the bright lights of London and the city’s more rural surroundings in classy, low-key fashion. Pop soundtrack, however, is a bland mix, lurching from one ill-placed tune to the next in an attempt to underline emotions that haven’t been filled in onscreen.

The Wedding Date

Production

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures and Gold Circle Films presentation of a 26 Films production in association with Visionview. Produced by Nathalie Marciano, Michelle Chydzik Sowa, Jessica Bendinger, Paul Brooks. Executive producers, Norm Waitt, Scott Niemeyer, Steve Robbins, Jim Reeve. Co-producer, Jeff Levine. Directed by Clare Kilner. Screenplay, Dana Fox, based on the novel "Asking for Trouble" by Elizabeth Young.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Oliver Curtis; editor, Mary Finlay; music, Blake Neely; music supervisor, Randy Gerston; production designer, Tom Burton; art director, Astrid Sieben; set decorator, Barbara Herman-Skelding; costume designer, Louise Page; sound (Dolby Digital), Martin Trevis; supervising sound editor, Bernard O'Reilly; line producer, Mairi Bett; casting, Carl Proctor. Reviewed at Mann Chinese 6, Los Angeles, Feb. 1, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Kat Ellis - Debra Messing Nick Mercer - Dermot Mulroney Amy - Amy Adams Edward Fletcher-Wooten - Jack Davenport TJ - Sarah Parish Jeffrey - Jeremy Sheffield Victor Ellis - Peter Egan Bunny - Holland Taylor Woody - Jolyon James Bike Messenger - C. Gerod Harris Teenager - Martin Barrett Male Flight Attendant - Jay Simon Harry - Stephen Lobo

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