Formula doesn’t equal funny

Ashley Judd, working on that “New Cow Theory.”

Ashley Judd, working on that “New Cow Theory.”

Rated 3.0

People revile critics for giving away the end of a movie, but they seldom bat an eyelid when the movie’s producers do it themselves. Anyone who saw the trailer for Cast Away had no doubt about whether Tom Hanks would get off that island. God forbid they should sit through a two-and-a-half-hour movie wondering what’s going to happen.

So it is with Someone Like You, directed by Tony Goldwyn and adapted by Elizabeth Chandler from Laura Zigman’s novel Animal Husbandry. The film’s catchphrase spills the beans: “A movie about the one that got away—and the one you never saw coming.” There you are, fans: in Someone Like You, Ashley Judd spends the whole movie pining over Greg Kinnear, only to fly into the arms of Hugh Jackman at the fade-out. But I’m not the one who told you—it was 20th Century Fox.

The film’s marketing strategy seems geared to the laziest audience the producers could imagine. Granted, the novel’s title is a hard sell, but did they really need to change it to something so meaningless, so brain-dead and generic? Why didn’t they just call it A Movie About a Woman and Two Men with Some Sex, a Few Laughs and Ashley Judd in Bikini Panties?

Fortunately, Someone Like You isn’t quite as stupid as 20th Century Fox seems to think we are. It’s a little maladroit and ungainly, and the effort to be sophisticated and lighthearted shows more than it should. But it has appealing actors and an aura of good intentions.

Ashley Judd plays a TV talent booker named Jane Goodale (whatever else the film does, at least it keeps the chimpanzee jokes to a minimum) who works for Diane Lewis (Ellen Barkin), a hardboiled daytime talk show host. Jane falls for the show’s new executive producer, Ray Brown (Kinnear), and soon they are planning to move in together. But Ray dumps Jane at the last minute, after her apartment has been re-rented. Stuck for somewhere to live, she moves in with Eddie (Jackman), a womanizing co-worker with a succession of one-night stands.

To explain her romantic failures, Jane develops the “New Cow Theory.” Men, the theory goes, are like bulls: biologically driven to spread their seed around, they won’t mate with the same cow twice. She publishes her theory under an assumed name, and the elderly scientist she pretended to be becomes a media heroine—in fact, Jane’s own boss orders her to book the old lady on the show. Meanwhile, Jane alternates between mooning over Ray and boasting that she is so over him.

Since Fox has blown any doubts about where all this is going, the only question is: how is the trip? Well, it’s not bad, in a generic date-movie sort of way.

Ashley Judd is a real star and a conscientious actress, but comedy doesn’t seem to come naturally to her. By contrast, co-stars Barkin and Marisa Tomei (who plays Jane’s best friend) are effortlessly comic, and Judd relaxes noticeably in her scenes with them. But Judd does have some wonderful moments of her own, like an endearing scene where she re-enacts a cheer from her high-school cheerleader days, stumbling a little and starting over, then suddenly turning into a happy teenager right before our eyes. It’s one of the few times we don’t see her working at being funny, and the movie suddenly becomes loose and breezy, the scene almost feeling improvised.

As a director, Tony Goldwyn is unsure of the material and careless about details. He stages the old “Get it? Got it! Good!” routine so badly that it doesn’t even register. A Christmas party scene where Jane and Ray get back together rings false, with no rhythm and poor continuity. Worst of all, the climactic scene, with Jane coming to her senses on the air, turns into a muddle because Goldwyn hasn’t shaped what came before to lead us to this moment.

Still, the feel-good stuff works, even when it’s bobbled. Judd and Jackman are good at the Beatrice-and-Benedick stuff, and Greg Kinnear pretty much has a lock on the preening jackass routine. I got the feeling that Chandler’s book (which I haven’t read) is better than the movie. But somehow, that’s OK too.