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‘Win a Date’ is less than a fine romance

Topher Grace as a man who tries to compete with ‘Tad Hamilton.’ By John Hartl

It’s been three years since Topher (aka Christopher) Grace nearly stopped “Traffic” by playing the slippery seducer of Michael Douglas’ junkie daughter. It was the kind of attention-getting performance that jump-starts careers partly because it promised so much and partly because he’d never made a movie before.

But aside from steady work in television (“That 70s Show”), Grace has followed it up with only minor parts: a funny throwaway bit in another Steven Soderbergh movie (“Ocean’s Eleven”) and a bland boyfriend role in last month’s Julia Roberts flop, “Mona Lisa Smile.”

He finally gets a leading role in “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!,” a romantic comedy that opens this weekend and will be forgotten by Valentine’s Day. The best that can be said of the picture is that Grace carries it with grace, plus charm and style, and that he never behaves as if he knows the material is beneath him.

Formula fluffHis role is pure formula. Pete Monash, a Piggly Wiggly manager in West Virginia, has been in love with one of his employees, Rosalee Futch (Kate Bosworth), for most of his 20-plus years. Of course, he’s never had the nerve to tell her, so he hangs out with her and pretends to be merely her best friend. They go to movies together with another pal (Ginnifer Goodwin), and he snipes at the sappier Hollywood epics starring the inescapable hunk Tad Hamilton (Josh Duhamel).

When Rosalee wins a date with Tad in Hollywood, Pete comes close to losing it. He harrasses Rosalee, tells her to “guard your carnal treasure,” and tries to prevent her from spending time with Tad. He even prods the local police to spy on Tad when the latter becomes so besotted with Rosalee‘s rural “goodness” that he abandons his career, turns up at their West Virginia store and buys a nearby farm.

The director, Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”), and the writer, Victor Levin (from the “Mad About You” television series), would appear to have the credentials to pull off this kind of fluff. They do their best to make credible the contest between Pete and Tad, who seems a genuinely nice guy even when he’s using lines from his movies to seduce Rosalee — and she has the nerve to call him on it.

You never doubt where the movie is headed, or what the characters will do when they realize how they feel about each other. There are no surprises, though the filmmakers have some fun with their pokes at Hollywood’s pervasive influence (Rosalee’s father tries to impress Tad with a “Project Greenlight” T-shirt), and all three of the leading actors are better than they have any right to be.

Bosworth, the champion surfer from “Blue Crush,” gives Rosalee a distinctive mixture of ditsiness and candor (“Doesn’t it hurt, smiling all the time?” she asks Tad). Duhamel, best-known for his work on the television series “Las Vegas,” gets just far enough beneath Tad’s shallow surface to make you wonder if he’s suffering a mid-career crisis. Pete, as written, is almost a stalker, but Grace gives him a puppy-dog resilience that ultimately conquers all qualms.