The magical touch required to construct a romantic comedy around a 10-year-old boy’s first love is simply beyond this puzzling ode to Manhattan tourism. Resting almost entirely on the shoulders of its young leads, both they and the pic lack the sparkle to sustain what seeks to be a whimsical premise but, except for a few moments, proves ponderous instead. Premiering in New York before a broader release next month, theatrical playdates should be brief before pic bicycles off to youth-targeting basic-cable networks, which is where “Little Manhattan” belonged in the first place.
Real-life husband-and-wife tandem Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin wrote and directed, respectively, and while they give it the old grade-school try, they’re virtually undone from the get-go.
For starters, the pervasive adult-sounding narration handed to fifth-grader Gabe (Josh Hutcherson) might have looked cute on the page, but even with his Linus voice the language and tone don’t feel natural. The character is so young that the sitcom-style lines — like “It’s easier scheduling Arab-Israeli peace talks than making a date with this girl” or “I loathed myself for feeling like I did” — are not just off-kilter but vaguely creepy.
Gabe’s a pretty ordinary kid in a dysfunctional situation. His parents (Bradley Whitford and Cynthia Nixon, at less than half-speed) are headed toward divorce but still awkwardly sharing the same apartment, even though mom has decided it’s time to start dating.
Dad, on the other hand, inspired by Tiger Woods, hopes to retire by turning Gabe into an NFL-caliber football kicker. Unfortunately, Gabe opts for karate classes, where he encounters Rosemary (Charlie Ray, in her acting debut). After a few fast falls, he realizes there’s something strange and new about his feelings for her, prompting a lot of soul-searching about the cruelty and mysteries of love.
Even the French don’t usually fall this hard, this fast, this young, and what follows doesn’t add up to much. Gabe waits outside Rosemary’s house, concocts excuses to practice with her and eventually joins her and her parents on what seems like a date, only to discover Rosemary’s future includes plans for camp and then private school, which throws up roadblocks to their semi-budding romance.
The result is a child obsessing in a very adult-like manner about first kisses, prying Rosemary away from her nanny and hiding the infatuation from his friends and folks. Of course, none of that settles the nagging question that if the girl reciprocates, what then, exactly?
Interestingly, Levin’s resume includes an extended stint as a producer on “The Wonder Years.” Having an adult provide the voiceover on that series made a substantial difference that probably would have been beneficial here.
As it is, the director throws in visual flourishes, fantasy sequences and movie tributes (most notably one to “The Graduate”) to little effect, the exception being a martial-arts TV star who coaches Gabe much like Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam.” There’s also appropriate use of the lilting song “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes),” a name and tune the Farrelly brothers employed similarly in “Shallow Hal.”
Hutcherson’s credits include roles in “Kicking and Screaming” and “The Polar Express,” but the filmmakers do their star no favors by saddling him with reams of stilted dialogue and a truly misguided scene where he must sob uncontrollably. The adults, meanwhile, are only slightly more present than the parents in a Charlie Brown cartoon.
All told, it’s a strangely conceived brew — one that’s likely too mushy for most cootie-fearing kids and might make parents wrestling with when-to-date issues a trifle uneasy.
“When you’re 10 years old,” Gabe observes near the outset, “two and a half weeks can be a lifetime.”
Once you’re grown up, 90 minutes can feel that way, too.