How to Deal Movie Review

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You could take a camcorder to the mall, videotape strangers at random, and end up with a better movie than Mandy Moore's How to Deal. Soggy and melodramatic, this mess aims to address the obstacles we encounter en route to romance. But a pessimistic mood causes the picture to drag its feet. Staged without an ounce of genuine sentiment, Deal makes Britney Spears' dismal Crossroads look like Casablanca.

Screenwriter Neena Beber draws inspiration from two separate Sarah Dessen novels, but can't squeeze one decent movie out of the material. In only her second starring role, Moore plays Halley Martin, a disillusioned high schooler learning how to deal with a lifetime's worth of problems. Halley's divorced dad (Peter Gallagher) has a new fiancée, while her mom (Allison Janney) is still coping with the split. Her best friend, Scarlett (Alexandra Holden), is pregnant, and her older sister's pending nuptials appear doomed from the start. Out of the blue, Halley is falling for a detached hunk (Trent Ford) who might be able to convince her that true love exists.

Most of Deal's mistakes belong to first-time director Clare Kilner. She tries to handle serious adult topics with teen sensibilities and can't manage either side with conviction. Messages regarding teen pregnancy or broken homes feel phony and dishonest. Relevant points are suffocated with unfunny gags, from a pot-smoking grandmother to a frisky pooch. It's the equivalent of Oprah Winfrey attempting to film a sentimental segment of her talk show in front of MTV's TRL studio audience.

Worst of all, Halley isn't a character worth emulating. Spoiled and self-centered, she posts endless questions about the nature of love, but waits for no answers. Moore might've made her relatable, but the actress brings little to the role. Her furrowed brow is supposed to suggest deep thought, but makes her look like she has an ice cream headache. She's consistently boring, and Moore's efforts go unassisted by Kilner's choppy direction.

Then again, Kilner's unfocused approach leaves just about everybody high and dry. Janney and Gallagher do what they can with underdeveloped roles. Potentially attractive subplots are often delayed so Moore and Ford can play kissy-face to the latest John Mayer single. Realizing the film lacks follow-through, Kilner ties all her loose ends together in one jumbled, predictable logjam that involves a bridal party cluttering up a maternity ward. Original, this is not.

The last word belongs to Moore, who utters this line when describing her father's beachside wedding but might as well be talking about this film. She says, "It was great, if you're the devil and happen to enjoy human pain." Point well taken.

It's how they deal: Clapping.

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How to Deal Rating

" Unbearable "

Rating: PG-13, 2003


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