It was panned at the time, and has been all but lost to DVD bargain-basement bins, but The Perfect Man is one of the few mid-00s romcoms that gets the balance of sweet and absurd just right, blending the classic romance and a more 00s sensibility with an earnest ebullience that at times feels like a lost John Hughes classic. Unlike so many mid-00s romcoms, there’s not a trace of cynicism or self-doubt – just a charming earnestness, as writer Gina Wendkos and director Mark Rosman unfold a latter-day version of Richard Benjamin’s Mermaids. This time around, Heather Locklear plays Jean Hamilton, and Hilary Duff plays Holly Hamilton, who’s growing tired of moving to a new city whenever her mother ends a relationship. When they land in Brooklyn, she decides to use her friend Amy’s uncle Ben, played by Chris Noth, to devise a fictional suitor for Jean. Under the guise of a school project, she interviews Ben about his idea of the “perfect man,” and, in collaboration with her own burgeoning love interest, Adam Forrest, played by Ben Feldman, creates a persona who woos her mother from afar.
The stage is set, then, for a remote romance along the lines of You’ve Got Mail, except that we’re on the cusp of total connectivity now, and (more dramatically) one of the two parties doesn’t exist. Much of The Perfect Man takes place at the nexus between early and late 00s, on the threshold between the last gasp of physical media, and the triumph of virtual space. Holly’s new school has just brought in a mobile phone policy, and smart phones are only a year or two away, but material culture still reigns, from the objects that clutter Holly’s bedroom, to the burnt CD that she includes in the first letter from her mother’s admirer, who she also names Ben. Everyone is networked, but the network is still able to enhance physical space, rather than totally supplant it – all of the characters are looking up at the same moon, “a little piece of magic that comes out each night to remind us there is beauty in everything.”
All of that makes The Perfect Man a remarkably resonant evocation of the earliest days of online dating – it is to online dating what You’ve Got Mail is to email. Jean is about to try her luck online when Holly introduces her to Ben, and yet this romance doesn’t delay so much as intensify the heady wonder of online dating. After all, Jean falls in love with Ben without seeing him, and flirts with him remotely. Holly thus plays the role of the date matching algorithm, again recalling those early days of virtual flirting when the connections between people seemed more soulful, somehow, than the mechanical coldness of a post-Tindr world. We see the same soulful virtuality, the belief in a real connection, in Holly’s blogging life, which also forms the film’s voiceover. The Perfect Man was released at the height of blogging, at a moment when blogging was almost indistinguishable from internal monologue, or even from dialogue, especially on cosy late-night IM chats: “What are you doing?” “Just thinking.”
The dual allure of blogging and online dating generates a beautifully lush mise-en-scene, a radiant vision of Brooklyn Heights, where the Hamiltons live, along with a broader pastoral vision of Brooklyn. Jean works in a bakery, Ben runs a high-end bistro, and between these two poles, Brooklyn Heights feels like just another small town, much as it did to Bob Dylan when he paid tribute to it in “Tangled Up in Blue,” which echoes across much of the music and mise-en-scene here. That visual languor comes with a more general relaxation too, especially given how the film chooses to handle its central paradox: namely that Ben, Noth’s character, is basically queer-eyeing Jean’s relationship. Ben, who we first meet in the midst of a detailed discussion of floriology, doesn’t have any discernible romantic predilection of his own – he’s “discrete” and runs a fabulous bistro as a confirmed bachelor. In any other Hollywood film, he’d be the gay best friend, so The Perfect Man has to bring in Carson Kressley, the most “out” member of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, to be super-gay and so confirm that Ben is hetero.
Again, in another film, this might seem like a cynical gesture, but here it actually frees up Ben to act as a fantasy, a placeholder, a space where romance might flourish, one remove from the more toxic and resentful masculinities that proliferated throughout so many 00s romcoms. Much of the film is Ben ruminating soulfully on his idea of the perfect man, daring to imagine a different masculinity but without the paranoia of being lumped in with the gays. The perfect man thus becomes a way of opening up room for actual men to be nice, gay and straight, much as the film already has a miniature romcom within it, orchestrated by Holly and Ben, that gives it remarkable license to expand, relax and renew the romcom genre itself. No surprise, then, that Adam only realises he loves Holly while occupying this fantasy space.
At the same time, this also means that the perfect man, and men generally, are ultimately somewhat incidental to Jean and Holly’s relationship. Despite the romantic trappings, The Perfect Man is, at heart, a story about a mother and daughter reconnecting through the technologies of their time – like Mermaids fifteen years before. The two sustained IM scenes involve mother and daughter learning something about each other, both while couched in personae that evolve from Holly’s initial plan. Paradoxically, though, this only enhances the romance in turn, transforming the third act into a sustained montage sequence – in the best possible way – as the gestures get bolder and bigger, and the film leans into an earnestness that blends the most normcore of Hollywood cues with indie new sincerity: “I once heard that love is friendship on fire.” It’s as if the film is trying to stay poised between virtual and physical space, by imbuing the virtual space of the romcom with one last charge of affect before it moves to a flatter and more cynical online world. Rather than resolving its romances, then, The Perfect Man allows them to quiver enough for Jean to recognise that “staying is our new adventure,” and Holly to finally reflect: “Now I don’t just have a homepage – I have a home.”