WHAT A GIRL WANTS is yet another reworking of the tried and true Cinderella formula. In this case tired and true might be more apt as this version has an American gal from New York breathing some life into stuffy old England. Would that screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler had found a way to breath some life into that old chestnut instead of flattening their inspiration, William Douglas Holmes’ sophisticated comedy of manners, THE RELUCTANT DEUBANTE, a film that featured Rex Harrison at his debonair best aided and abetted by the frothy Kay Kendall. And would that our modern day Cinderella, Amanda Bynes had something more going for her than a chubby-cheeked cuteness and a perky attitude. It worked for Sandra Dee, who played the debutante in 1958, but she wasn’t the focus of that film as Byne is here.
The premise is much more like that of THE PRINCESS DIARIES. Down-to-earth Daphne has grown up in a funky fifth-floor walk-up in New York’s Chinatown, the daughter of a free-spirited musician mother (Kelly Preston) and a member of the British upper crust. They met cute out in the Bedouin desert, fell in love, and were cruelly parted by the machinations of his disapproving family. They parted with him never knowing that he had a daughter. He would be Lord Dashwood, and in the person of Colin Firth, he’s ably played with a sweet bemusement at sudden fatherhood. There’s also from the very beginning more than a little hint beneath the stuffed shirt that this is a guy who misses his old life of travel and adventure. Alas, he’s been swept into politics and a rigid class propriety by the Dashwood family Svengali, played with nefarious but restrained glee by Jonathan Pryce.
Daphne decides that 17 is the perfect age to seek out dad and, of course, that’s just when dad is running for a seat in Parliament as a stepping stone to one day becoming Prime Minister. The press is hounding him and an illegitimate daughter is just the sort of thing they’d like to pounce on.
This being the sort of film that is aimed at pre-teens, naturally, Daphne takes the upper crust by storm, ingratiating herself with her unaffected charm and exuberance. Well, almost all. This being a by-the-numbers plot, she also has to contend with her father’s conniving fiancée and her snooty and equally conniving daughter.
It’s all played simple and broad, with characters that couldn’t be complicated on a bet. That’s not what this sort of fairy tale is about. Bynes is as wholesome as apple pie, even in a gown cut tightly enough to show the outline of her bellybutton (it’s an inny). She gamely negotiates the de rigeur scenes of gazing with wonder and awe at her new gilt and crystal surroundings, telling off the snobby almost step-sister, wowing the gentry and being wooed by a local musician who has had his own run-ins with the British class system. And lest any cliché be left behind, there’s the torn-between-two-worlds segment of the story. You can tell she’s giving it her all, but Bynes never quite manages to sparkle, and without that, there is nothing on which this creaky plot can propel itself, much less justify its existence.
For every genuinely charming moment, such as when Daphne and Dashwood make toast and unconsciously mirror one another right down to using their pinkies to wipe away the excess jam, there’s a dozen scenes to take the charm right off. When Daphne gets a lesson in proper curtseying technique in a rowboat (where else?), is there any possible way that the scene isn’t going to be ending in a splash? Of course not. And such is the bulk of the film, more often than not to the sound of the soundtrack designed to sell even if the film doesn’t.
Still it all goes down as easily as a strawberry sundae and with just about as much substance. It has the virtue of being harmless viewing for targeted audience of younger teenage girls what with no crashes, no explosions, no gunfire and nothing more profane than a reference to a flying fart. Plus those young girls will love all the cool outfits and great hairdos Bynes wears as she goes through her Cinderella paces on her way to a happy ending. In a world full of major disappointments, sometimes we must cling to what disappoints least.