Perhaps having temporarily exhausted the supply of variations on classic princess stories, Hollywood has gone back to the real thing in “A Cinderella Story.” But modern footwear simply doesn’t fit this perennial fairy tale heroine, who’s been reborn as a Valley Girl in a rendition that stumbles in almost every conceivable way as it attempts to deliver not only a hunky Prince Charming but some grrrrl empowerment along the way. Hilary Duff will have the target aud of tweener femmes lining up on opening weekend, but limp storytelling and dud stabs at comedy should be apparent even to kids, spelling less magical B.O. than a better film would have generated.
Teaming up with her frequent “Lizzie McGuire” television director Mark Rosman in a bigscreener that looks distressingly TV-like in every respect, the irrepressibly perky Duff, who in “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” last year seemed to be positioning herself to become the new Britney Spears, here seems to be grooming herself as the next Reese Witherspoon. At least in terms of role modeling, 16-year-old thesp is demonstrating improved taste and ambition.
But that’s about all that can be said in favor of this lusterless trifle, which manages the almost unimaginable feat of making Jennifer Coolidge come off badly. Nearly every contempo teenpic cliche within PG range is on the menu put together by first-time scripter Leigh Dunlap, with no specials provided to offset the blandness.
“The Valley is my kingdom,” proclaims Sam Montgomery (Duff), referring to the San Fernando Valley, a domain of far greater wealth and population but vastly less charm than what Cinderella has heretofore been accustomed to. Brief prologue shows little Sam being suddenly deprived of her loving dad by the 1994 Northridge earthquake. For the several million people who experienced that event, scene will seem a bit odd, in that the temblor hits just when dad is putting his daughter to bed, which would only figure if Sam turned in after 4 a.m.
Just as unaccountable is the fact that this same good-looking dad had recently married an ungainly harridan named Fiona (Coolidge) who, upon his demise, redecorates his timelessly cool diner in “Legally Blonde” pink and makes a scullery maid of Sam both there and at home. Of course, Fiona also has two frightful daughters of her own who keep Sam busy doing their homework and taking the blame for their nonsense.
At school, Sam hangs with the nerds, specifically Carter (Dan Byrd), a late-bloomer with a theatrical penchant for dressing in extreme costumes. Derided by the Mean Girls as “Diner Girl,” Sam is also involved in a confessional and flirtatious email correspondence with a mysterious fellow named Nomad who claims to be a misunderstood poetic soul but who is actually the school’s hunky football star, heartthrob and fellow Princeton applicant, Austin Ames (Chad Michael Murray).Script is dominated by malicious banter that falls woefully short of intended delicious cattiness. But this shortcoming is nothing compared to the filmmakers’ drastic misjudgment concerning how much suspension of disbelief the audience might be prepared to grant regarding Sam going unrecognized as the princess who charms the prince at the ball.
Clad in an unused wedding dress and a simple white mask at the Halloween Dance, Sam learns who Nomad is and begins getting physical with him when midnight artificially requires her exit. Even after this prolonged up-close exposure, Austin can’t deduce the identity of the girl who’s captivated him, and no one else gets it either.
Entirely incredible situation makes the follow-up unraveling incredibly tedious, as pic laboriously avenges every slight, rights every wrong and sends the happy couple on its way to the Ivy League with every last little bow tied and neatly in place.
Duff’s fan base will be happy enough to watch her character doggedly overcome underdog status and finally deliver the comeuppance Fiona and her idiot sprigs richly deserve. Same crowd will be equally pleased with the extensive screen time of the severely good-looking Murray. But Coolidge’s many admirers will be distressed to see this distinctive comedienne’s deliberately abrasive act slip from sharp-edged caricature to bloated cartoon as she struts about as an over-the-top witch enamored of Botox and lyposuction.
Visually, the film is sorely in need of a degree of stylization and glamour provided neither by budget nor artistry. Soundtrack offers the usual mix of hyperactive underscoring and pop tunes.