Who would want to date someone named "Brooks Rattigan"?
It sounds like a jerk who makes furniture. It sounds like a corrupt law firm. It sounds like a preppy mobster. It sounds like an announcement of the two competitors who will face off in the final match of a wrestling tournament in a town whose population was built only by reproduction between and among people who rowed crew in college.
And yet this is the name of the hero of the new perfectly OK Netflix teenage romcom, The Perfect Date. Based on the book The Stand-In by Steve Bloom, it's written by Bloom and Randall Green. (A trivia note: way back in 1985, Bloom wrote the screenplay of The Sure Thing, one of the best young-person romantic comedies ever.) And the star, announced in March of 2018 months before he was an OH MY GOD level streaming romcom idol, is To All The Boys I've Loved Before's Noah Centineo, now Hashtag-Peter-Kavinsky to many of the tweens who follow you on Instagram. (And some of the people who are older than that.)
Centineo plays ... Brooks Rattigan (yikes), a high school senior who desperately wants to get into the Ivy League. He looks up to Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, so when he thinks about his bright future, he's thinking mogul thoughts. While working at the sub shop with his romcom-required Gay Best Friend (boys have them now, too!), Brooks learns that ... the cousin of a guy he doesn't like needs an escort to a dance? And the guy is being paid to take his cousin to a dance? I'm sorry, those should be periods. And yet they remain question marks.
Of course, in need of money, a cool car, and extracurriculars (wait, wait, is this going to be an extra — OK, never mind, gotta get past the plot, I hear you), Brooks decides to jump in and take over the job. He'll get paid to take the girl out, he'll be a perfect date, and he'll get to drive the guy's car. Hold on to your military boots, because it turns out the girl he's taking out is Celia Lieberman, who is not the boring zero he's kind of expecting! She is a sort of punky, rebellious misfit who won't wear heels to a dance! Played by Laura Marano, for years one of the leads of Disney's Austin & Ally, Celia is unimpressed by Brooks, and they clash right away. WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
I say all this with love, of course, because this is standard romantic comedy stuff, especially in films made to be devoured by teenagers — and good for them. The '80s and '90s had plenty of properties with similarly classic elements: Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Some Kind Of Wonderful ... nothing wrong with that. And when they're good — as was the case with To All The Boys I've Loved Before last year — they're just an utter delight.
This one is not as good as that, I'm afraid. It spends a little too much time with a very unpleasant version of Brooks, bound to become a better person but not there yet. After he has success taking out Celia, he develops an app (...sure) to offer himself as a fake date. You can pay him to take you to a dance or an event, or you can book him for dating practice (the one girl who needs this is the one fat girl, SIGH COME ON PEOPLE), or you can hire him to be a fake terrible date so that your parents will be more receptive to the much nicer guy you actually like. Whether a high-school student could really get this many girls to pay him, openly, for his company seems questionable, but it allows him to slip in and out of many personas, none of which are genuine. You know, like a guy who's kind of a jerk would do.
There is then a convoluted situation that continues to bring him back to Celia even as he circles his dream girl (Camila Mendes). Celia eventually grows tired of his particular hustle (as you will be by that time), and they have tension, and they have to find a way to get back together.
It's very fortunate that Centineo and Marano do have nice chemistry — which struggles in the early scenes to emerge around the weird writing in which they both seem like unpleasant people who are hard to root for. In the second half, the movie becomes pretty likable, as it gets easier to see that Brooks is approaching his Grip-Getting Moment, in which he will be Getting a Grip, even if involuntarily. There's a kind of genial grooviness to Centineo, even when he's aggravating (no non-aggravating person has ever been this preoccupied by his feelings about Elon Musk), and once Celia is allowed to drift over from "fighting with him pointlessly because she's someone's version of a punk girl" to "likes him but genuinely has his number," Marano is solid as well.
This isn't quite going to scratch your romcom itch in a satisfying way. The first act is strangely paced and often rather baffling even grading on a romcom curve ("Why would this person do that, as opposed to doing a very different thing that would seem like a much more likely and much less stupid thing to do?"). Brooks is more annoying in the script than he should ideally be for longer than he should ideally be, with fewer moments in which any warmth really comes through (even though Centineo has it to give in his performance). But by the end, I was essentially on board, and if you're thinking about getting some couch time in this weekend and you're hoping it will be good company for you, it probably will.
(One last one: "Disgraced financier Brooks Rattigan has been sentenced to 34 years in a minimum-security prison.")