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by: Michael Dequina

When Miramax's publicity department announced that their youth romance Down to You would not be screened in advance for critics because they were running behind in getting prints finished, it was easy to peg that excuse as a bunch of hooey. After all, this is January, the traditional dumping ground for cinematic refuse. While I don't think the film is quite at that low level, it does suffer from a big problem--one that is, interestingly enough, suggested by Miramax's no-screening reason: in terms of content, the film feels unfinished itself.

First-time writer-director Kris Isacsson does have his basic components in place. The heart of the film is the love story--told in heavy flashback--between two New York college students, aspiring chef Al (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and artist Imogen (Julia Stiles). Their love is first love--meaning fiery, impetuous, and in many ways immature. For the most part, what is not immature is Isacsson's honest portrayal of such a type of relationship. This being a standard-issue Hollywood romance, it's not a spoiler to say that Al and Imogen are destined to end up together. Adding authenticity to such a convention is the unforced rapport between Prinze and Stiles. Yet as easily as their chemistry convinces that these two do belong together, one does get the sense that these two characters aren't quite ready to make the commitment to match their natural compatibility. They're human, but they're also quite young, and thus prone to do things that make little sense, least of all to themselves--and Al and Imogen hold true to that fact.

While Al and especially Imogen come off as real people, their supporting cast is sketchy at best. Selma Blair is wasted in a throwaway role as a porn star attracted to Al; Rosario Dawson is similarly squandered as Imogen's flaky friend Lana. At one point, Al gets on the outs with his actor/also-porn-dabbling friend Monk (Zak Orth), but one never gets a clear idea of who Monk is and how close he is with Al that it's impossible to care. The background players that remotely make any impressions are those used for cheap comic relief: Al's workout-happy roomie Eddie (Shawn Hatosy) and Al's TV chef father (Henry Winkler).

But even those two fail to serve their real purpose: they really aren't all that funny. Then again, neither are all of the stabs at comedy in Down to You. This being a PG-13 film, the numerous porn and sex gags are not only dumbed-down but played-down, thus rendering them pointless. In fact, all the attempts for laughs feel pointless, for they serve to distract from the real matter at hand--the Al/Imogen romance. Down to You feels unfinished largely because Isacsson never decided what he really wanted to make: a straight romance, or a romantic comedy. As such, we have a love story whose charm is often undercut by silly would-be comedy such as one character's attempted suicide by shampoo ingestion.

Like its title, Down to You ultimately comes down to one person, and that is Stiles. As she demonstrated in 10 Things I Hate About You, not only is she an actress blessed with beauty and real presence, she also is quite talented; she is able to suggest a depth to Imogen not necessarily written in Isacsson's script. She is also able to bring out a charm in her co-star that I had never before seen in his other films. I look forward to seeing her in a real movie, for underachieving fluff such as Down to You fail to serve this promising new star any justice.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)


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