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Sugary ‘Perfect Man’ has its flaws

Hilary Duff creates an imaginary man for Heather Locklear to fall for. By John Hartl

Before it plunges into PG-rated sugar shock, “The Perfect Man” suggests the makings of an interesting movie about a family on the run.

Jean Hamilton (Heather Locklear) is a single mother who has such terrible luck with men that she feels compelled to move to another city every time she gets dumped. Her teenage daughter, Holly (Hilary Duff), and her younger child, Zoe (Aria Wallace), have grown so used to being uprooted that they regard this behavior as normal.

“I’m through with these people,” says Holly. “I want new ones.”

For the sake of self-preservation, they’ve learned not to get too attached to friends or places. Holly compares their situation to the Witness Relocation Program, yet when they move to Brooklyn, she feels like staying for awhile. The only problem: Jean  instantly hooks up with another loser, an aggressive baker named Lenny (Mike O’Malley) who overwhelms her at work and doesn’t give up easily.

As an alternative, Holly creates a “perfect man,” a secret admirer who sends flowers and gifts to Jean and courts her by e-mail. He doesn’t really exist, though Holly borrows a face and a name from Ben (Chris Noth), the hunky and available uncle of her new best friend, Amy (Vanessa Lengies).

Holly also persuades an infatuated fellow student, Adam (Ben Feldman), to provide the voice for “Ben” when Jean speaks to him on the telephone. For inspiration, he stares at Holly’s picture while he’s using the phone to court her mother. This quickly turns him into one very mixed-up kid.

Alas, the movie nervously backs away from such kinky moments as soon as it creates them. More often than not, this timidity leaves the actors grasping for something to distinguish the characters they’re playing. Vanilla is the flavor the filmmakers are serving, and they’re determined to keep it that way.

But did they have to wrap everything up quite so tidily? It’s obvious from the first meeting between Adam and Holly where they’re headed — so much so that the roadblocks to their relationship seem absurdly contrived. It also doesn’t take a genius to guess where Ben and Jean will wind up, or that a botched wedding will play a major role.

Considering who’s working behind the cameras, the lack of surprises is not too surprising. “The Perfect Man” was written by Gina Wendkos, author of “The Princess Diaries,” and directed by Mark Rosman, who directed Huff in last year’s “A Cinderella Story” as well as 11 episodes of her television show, “Lizzie McGuire.” The editor (Cara Silverman) and composer (Christophe Beck) also worked on “A Cinderella Story.”

Still, there are moments here when the actors hint at what could have been. Locklear makes Jean’s desperation both off-putting and touching, while O’Malley makes Lenny seem simultaneously vulnerable and obnoxious. Lengies is a charmer, Noth does a nice slow burn (entirely justified by Ben’s predicament), and Feldman and Huff generate a low-key chemistry that nearly makes up for the sickly sweet overkill of the finale.