How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
Director: Donald Petrie. Cast: Kate Hudson, Matthew McConaughey, Kathryn Hahn, Robert Klein, Bebe Neuwirth, Adam Goldberg, Thomas Lennon, Michael Michele, Shalom Harlow, Annie Parisse, Celia Weston, James Murtaugh, Samantha Quan. Screenplay: Kristen Buckley & Brian Regan and Burr Steers (based on the book by Michele Alexander and Jeannie Long).

If you can lose a guy in 10 days, you can usually forget the last romantic comedy you saw in 5. By now, the entire genre depends on so many balancing acts that most such films don't even survive a first pass with the most generous viewers. Audiences love romantic movies, but they also love to hate them. They can so easily get sappy, feel familiar, botch the comedy, botch the romance, or otherwise go wrong. And as American movies get more and more superciliously ironic, what are the odds that a movie will deliver open and unabashed feeling, and thereby puncture an entire crowd's cynical self-insulation? After all, if one person in the theater cackles, the spell breaks for everyone. In truth, it is probably easier to write oneself into a screenplay about orchids than to script an onscreen love story that gets its laughs, earns our investment, and convincingly portrays two characters who everyone thinks should stick together (even if they don't know it yet).

Donald Petrie's How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is hardly up to all these challenge, and yet the movie is a pleasant surprise, because it makes an earnest effort and doesn't embarrass itself along the way. The film has charm and even some grace, neither of which could be presumed from the director of Miss Congeniality, the undiscerning star of The Four Feathers and Alex & Emma, and the braindead beefcake that is Matthew McConaughey. This is not a recipe that inspires quick belief—and yet, the movie's first deft blows against the skeptical masses are the charming performances delivered by each star. Do not expect the moon and the stars: Kate Hudson still feels dewy and awkward, like a just-born calf, and Matthew McConaughey still reverts to his One Sincere Expression, where his pupils dilate and his mouth makes a little "o," every time the mood gets serious.

And yet, and yet, Hudson's gifts seem much better-proportioned to the role of Andie Anderson, a shimmery-goofy semi-professional, than to those halo'd ingenues and tearful beloveds she's had to play elsewhere. And McConaughey, freed at last from learning a big lesson or giving good oratory or preaching of the Cosmic Beyond, finally has a role where he can relax in his jeans, tinker with some motorcycles, and affably enjoy the randy attentions he awakens in his midst. Neither actor comes near the craft and glamour of Old Hollywood, but rather than pretend otherwise, their film tailors its tone and mechanics to suit their shallow beauty. I suppose from one point of view, the movie seems to suffer when its deal-sealing line of romantic dialogue turns out to be "Bullshit!" Whatever Ernst Lubitsch might have made of this, How to Lose a Guy does convince us that these headstrong, Gap-wearing, genial narcissists would probably declaim their love in just this way. Love in this movie means calling your partner's bluff, and if that's how commitment-shy post-boomers perceive the rites of romance, they've certainly found the right movie to express as much.

Screenwriters Kristen Buckely and Brian Regan, married themselves, have orchestrated a high-concept predicament that deftly accommodates the hesitant, even bunkered view of attraction that twentysomething culture increasingly projects. Hudson scribbles fluff editorials for a youth-skewing woman's magazine. For her latest investigative gambol, she has elected to ward off a doting boyfriend on purpose, so her dear readers might realize their own tendencies to kill relationships through rampant, irritating behaviors they should really know better than to reprise. And sure, there's a misogynist twinge to that setup, but McConaughey's plotline is as goading of male vanity as Hudson's is of so-called female neuroticism. To score a professional opportunity over some peevish (but probably better qualified) female coworkers, McConaughey sets out to prove he can earn the love of any woman, through superficial devotion and a sheer refusal to give up. Agendas this well-matched (or is it ill-matched) can hardly fail to encounter each other, and an unknowing battle of wills soon transpires, pretty much exactly as we expect.

What's really nice about How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is that, however economical the story setup and however sympathetic the stars, it is a rare studio offering that creates the right atmosphere for drawing out our pleasure. More and more, romantic comedy is a genre where big bucks get spent on the headlining talent while every other dimension of the film is left garish and unattended. The shrill, gaudy, and undercast Runaway Bride is a perfect example. Here, though, entire scenes are stolen by the spritely color compositions and natty designs. Without the foregrounded opulence of something like Down with Love, production designer Thérèse DePrez (who showered Hedwig and the Angry Inch in her crazy magic) and costume designer Karen Patch (a key contributor to The Royal Tenenbaums) keep all the studio interiors and clothing ensembles sleek, clean, and primary-colored. As photographed by the estimable John Bailey, the film finally emerges not as a well-outfitted romance but as an offhandedly luscious vision that the actors are careful not to muss. The screenplay has its inexplicable lapses (does anyone buy Kate Hudson as an aspiring global-affairs reporter?), and both tone and logic get violently unsettled in the closing scenes. I think it's the visual coherence of the picture, much more than the leads' acting, that prevents these flaws from overtaking the film.

It's also worth noting that How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, either through careful planning or dumb luck, finds the right trajectories for two stars that would have been insufferable in the opposite roles. After having her babyish beauty and girlish giggles forced down our throats, it's refreshing to see Kate Hudson grating a little on our nerves; after McConaughey's indigestible performances, oncscreen and off, as moral philosophers and cocky macho-men, one is gratified to see him undone by a Chinese Crested and barely keeping pace with a Barbie's bouncy caprices. There's not enough to How to Lose a Guy to get really excited about, but there's enough in it to be entertained and even, within reason, encouraged. We've all noticed that Hollywood can still turn out a couple great movies a year but has a hard time making any good ones—the fetchingly run-of-the-mill stuff that used to be the movies' bread and butter. (Ever notice how turning on TCM or AMC at any hour of the day is often a welcome respite, but wandering heedlessly into Cinemax or Starz! is asking for disaster?) How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days combines modest actors doing their best with great technicians doing what comes naturally. Let lovers quarrel, I say, as long as the moviemakers are all well-paired. B–

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