[Screen It]

(2003) (Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth) (PG)

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Drama: An American teenager sets off for London to meet her father who doesn't know she exists and ends up shaking up his staid life and potentially endangers his political ambition of running for Parliament.
All 17-year-old Daphne Reynolds (AMANDA BYNES) has ever wanted in her life is a father, but her wedding-singer mother, Libby (KELLY PRESTON), has yet to find a soul mate like Henry Dashwood (COLIN FIRTH). The two met seventeen years earlier in Morocco where they were unofficially married, but when she returned with him to his aristocratic home, her bohemian style didn't sit well with the rest of the family including their royal advisor, Alastair Payne (JONATHAN PRYCE). Accordingly, she moved back to America without letting Henry know she was pregnant.

Feeling that half of her is missing, Daphne sets out for London to introduce herself to her dad, unaware that he recently stepped down from the House of Lords and is running for Parliament as a commoner. Nor does she know that he's about to marry Alastair's haughty daughter, Glynnis (ANNA CHANCELLOR) and thus become stepfather to her snooty teenage offspring, Clarissa (CHRISTINA COLE).

With the help of local musician Ian Wallace (OLIVER JAMES), Daphne gets acclimated to her surroundings and then sneaks into the Dashwood estate where she meets Henry, his widowed mother, Lady Jocelyn (EILEEN ATKINS), and everyone else. Since Daphne's sudden presence provides ample opportunity for unwelcome controversy and a likely scandal, Alastair and his brood deem that they should get rid of her as soon as possible.

Yet, Henry feels that he must get to know his biological daughter. As he begins to loosen up and Daphne eventually tries to fit into their prim and proper lifestyle, the two must decide whether to be true to their real selves, all while dealing with the pending election as well as the efforts of Glynnis and Clarissa to drive Daphne away.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
According to Cyndi Lauper, when the working day is done, girls just want to have fun. I imagine they want more than just that, starting with not being called girls after they reach a certain age. Yet, Hollywood seems to think differently, at least in terms of the sort of movies it makes for them.

Although there are always exceptions in various genres, the studios apparently seem to think that all girls (or women) really want are predictable romantic comedies or Cinderella type stories that don't stray too far from the formula and always have the happy ending.

"What a Girl Wants" is the latest such film of the latter category. As written by Jenny Bicks (HBO's "Sex and the City") and Elizabeth Chandler ("Someone Like You," "A Little Princess) and directed by Dennie Gordon ("Joe Dirt"), the plot - "inspired" by the 1958 Rex Harrison/Sandra Dee comedy, "The Reluctant Debutante" - is just a modified retelling of Cinderella.

Sure, the names have been changed (to protect the innocent or at least avoid lawsuits), but it has the heart and core of that classic tale. This time, however, the protagonist is a spunky NY teen with a bohemian mom whose prince turns out to be the father she's never met. Okay, it's really a dual prince story since that has sort of an icky incestuous feel to it (thus, there's also a young man as the love interest).

Filling out the necessary Cinderella elements is the evil stepmother-to-be and her nasty and equally underhanded daughter, while the protagonist's biological mother somewhat serves as the helpful Fairy Godmother character.

With that setup, it isn't hard to see that the film will be about as predictable as they come, or that from the moment you lay eyes on them, you'll know what will become of each and every character. Few will likely be surprised that those characters will also be involved in various musical montages including the obligatory trying on clothes sequence.

All of that appears to be the regulation and/or charm of such films (as well as romantic comedies) in that the targeted viewers seem to love, desire and/or find comfort in such familiarity, repetitiveness and predictability.

Granted, the film and its pretty star - the charming and easy on the eyes Amanda Bynes ("Big Fat Liar," TV's "All That") - are cute and certainly won't tax one's higher level of mental functioning. Yet, it must be the lack of estrogen flowing through my blood that prevents me from emitting that gushing "awww" sound over these offerings.

In following the formula and plot to a T, the filmmakers take no chances, but also don't allow for much imagination or creativity, let alone surprises. That is, except for delivering a host of convenient developments and appearances - that should have those involved playing the lottery due to the long odds involved - as well as various instances of unrealistic behavior. Yes, I'm picking on an easy target, but why can't the purveyors of such pablum do something special or at least different with the material?

Aside from Anna Chancellor ("Crush," "The Man Who Knew Too Little") and Christina Cole (making her feature film debut) who are nothing more than purposefully annoying caricatures, the rest of the performances are okay, if not exactly realistic or engaging. As the young protagonist, Bynes has an easygoing demeanor about her that makes her fairly enjoyable to watch, even if her character is as contrived as the rest of the film.

Colin Firth ("Bridget Jones's Diary," "Shakespeare in Love") predictably lets his hair down, so to speak, upon the arrival of his daughter, while Kelly Preston ("View From the Top," "For Love of the Game") is okay as his one-time wife and wisdom speaking mother to the protagonist.

Oliver James (making his debut) plays the young love interest and part-time singer who repeatedly manages to get gigs at the best events in town, while Jonathan Pryce ("Bride of the Wind," "Stigmata") embodies the Lord's longtime assistant. Like everyone else, they go through the motions and follow the prescribed route without any unnecessary flourishes.

I guess my biggest problem is that everything about the film feels artificial, contrived and formulaic to the point that it robs the effort of its spirit or any sense of fun, magic or originality. While the target audience will probably love it - as will the studio since it will probably make back its investment and then some - everyone else will likely view this as lukewarm, reheated Cinderella leftovers. Not horrible, but lacking in pretty much anything to make it memorable, "What A Girl Wants" rates as a mediocre 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 19, 2003 / Posted April 4, 2003

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