Maybe “Immaterial Girls” would have been a more appropriate title. Soft B.O. numbers for the Aug. 18-20 opening weekend indicate that even the presumptive fan base is ignoring “Material Girls,” a featherweight teen-skewing comedy with Hilary and Haylie Duff typecast as glam celebutantes. Pic wasn’t previewed for the press — surprise, surprise! — so MGM can’t blame the mean old critics for keeping the kids (and their parents and grandparents) away. Indeed, the distrib will have to shoulder some blame for its blandly generic ad campaign. Maybe a more aggressive and imaginative publicity push will generate interest for the eventual homevid release.
The Duff sisters — Hilary’s the blonde, Haylie the brunette — are perhaps too convincing for their own good in early scenes as spoiled and self-absorbed rich girls who, to paraphrase Prince, appear to have IQs smaller than their shoe sizes. Blithely oblivious to anything outside their cocoon of comfort, Tanzie (Hilary) and Ava Marchetta (Haylie) devote themselves to partying frequently and dressing fashionably when they’re not occupied with minimal duties as the ubiquitous “faces” for the eponymous cosmetics firm founded by their late father.
For most of the first half-hour or so, the Marchetta sisters come across as insufferable ditzes, even during their random acts of noblesse oblige. (When a worshipful underling compliments Tanzie’s dress, Tanzie beams brightly and responds: “Thank you. Maybe when I’m finished with it, I’ll give it to you.”) So the audience cannot help being amused — maybe more amused than the filmmakers intend — when scripters John Quaintance, Jessica O’Toole and Amy Rardin spring a nasty twist that takes the sisters down several pegs.
After a tabloid TV reporter (Henry Cho) breaks the news that Marchetta products may have disfiguring side effects, the company’s stock nosedives, corporate assets are frozen — and the sisters become social pariahs. A bad situation gets appreciably worse when, thanks to their own dim-wittedness, Tanzie and Ava manage to burn down their mansion and lose their expensive car. They wind up having to rely on the hospitality of their former maid (Maria Conchita Alonso) while trying to master the working-class routine of riding the bus, applying for jobs and — ugh! — doing really, really gross things like washing dishes.
Director Martha Coolidge (“Valley Girl,” “Rambling Rose”) infuses the predictable plot — which bears more than a slight resemblance to that of 1987’s “Maid to Order” — with a reasonable amount of visual flash and narrative zip. That helps. Although the pic begins as unduly grating, and the two leads initially inspire a desire for the forced feeding of just desserts, “Material Girls” slowly evolves into a tolerably silly trifle, and the Duff sisters become increasingly bearable, even likable.
Inspired by “Erin Brockovich” — the movie, of course, not the real-life crusader — Tanzie and Ava set out to clear their father’s name (and reclaim their father’s fortune) by disproving the reports of disfiguring side effects. While doing so, each sibling acquires her very own romantic interest: a pro bono lawyer (Lukas Haas) for Ava, a hunky lab assistant (Marcus Coloma) for Tanzie. No big surprises follow, but the wrap-up is quite painless.
The supporting players are more or less left to their own devices to flesh out thinly written roles. Among the pros making strong impressions: Anjelica Huston as a rival cosmetic tycoon, an imperious grande dame with just a slight hint of mischievousness; Brent Spiner (an alumnus of Coolidge’s “Out to Sea”) as the Marchetta CEO, a malaprop-prone fellow who sounds like he’s channeling a Borscht Belt comic; Reagan Dale Neis as the worshipful underling; and Maria Conchita Alonso as Inez, the Colombian-born maid who politely informs the Marchetta girls that, while she appreciates their willingness to donate clothing to the homeless, “Not too many homeless are size 2.” Look closely and you’ll also catch fleeting appearances by Colleen Camp, comic Judy Tenuta and former Olympic champ Carl Lewis.
It’s less substantial than cotton candy, but “Material Girls” is as slickly produced as one of the Marchetta TV spots.