What a Girl Wants
review by Elias Savada, 4 April 2003

Cinderella's back and Disney doesn't have her. Chalk this one up in the good ole WB column, that other network (What I Like About You, The Nightmare Room) which celebrates star Amanda Bynes' real 17th birthday (April 3, for the natal-inclined) with this pleasant, diverting, non-offensive (unless you're a snooty Brit) teen-dream variation of 2001's The Princess Diaries. Despite the occasional clumsiness that screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler have embedded in seventeen-year-old American Daphne Reynolds, Bynes blossoms as a determined, resourceful young lady obsessively inclined to connect with a father clueless about her existence, but a parent quickly eager to make amends. Dad is dashing Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth), a beloved London aristocrat with a liberal streak, a carefree past, a secret penchant for Cocoa Puffs, and a bohemian wife (Kelly Preston), or not, depending on how you translate the ancient Bedouin drumbeats. And his favorite rock group is Little Feat (they rock!). Back in New York's Chinatown, Mrs. Dashwood (the maybe missus) doesn't look (or sing) half-bad either in a weakly written role as a devoted mom still looking for the old romance in her life.

Of course this fairy tale needs dark clouds to offset all the artificial sweetness. The Paynes in Daphne's butt are three-fold: Alastair Payne (Brazil's Jonathan Pryce), the family's scummy political advisor, who unceremoniously shuttled Daphne's mom-to-be, Libby, out of the family's palatial abode just over sixteen years earlier; his daughter Glynnis (Anna Chancellor), ensconced at Dashwood Manor as Henry's stuffy fiancée; and the impeccably arrogant Clarissa (Christina Cole), a.k.a. Daphne's evil, future stepsister. These three are all orchestrating their own blatantly self-profiteering agenda (to install their man at 10 Downing Street and obliterate his hypothetical offspring), oddly missed by the plop-plop, fizz-fizz man of the house (but not by his servants). There's also conceited stuffed shirt Armistead Stuart (Ben Scholfield), a Cambridge over-achiever anxious for a kiss from the American sweetheart, but more inclined to get a kiss off.

Bynes, a former Nickelodeon star (The Amanda Show, All That) more than holds her own in her second feature (after Big Fat Liar), fighting off the ambient smugness with the help of the other Mrs. Dashwood (Eileen Atkins), Henry's down-to-earth mum, and Ian Wallace (newcomer Oliver James) as Daphne's love interest, too often bumping into the damsel in the dress at one posh outing after another (she as thirty-ninth contender to the throne, he as a working stiff). And let's not forget Firth, who looks damn good in black leather as he comically dumbs down to his daughter's tweenish level.

The script leaves horrible potholes all over the streets of London, paved over with an impressive soundtrack of Clash's London Calling, Craig David's What's Your Flava, and numerous other songs, including Oliver James' strong rendition of James Brown's classic Get Up Offa That Thing and two other tunes. There are several buddy sequences where the action derails in deference to relation-building side trips (father-daughter, daughter-lover, daughter-grandmother). Some of the writing is just plain unbelievable, particularly where Henry remarks that Daphne has his eyes. She's got two, alright (hey, maybe I'm related, too!), but the similarities stop there. Hers are gray, his are brown.

There's nothing terribly original here, and some old-timers will notice What A Girl Wants' similarities with the 1958 MGM film The Reluctant Debutante, as both share the same source material, a mid-1950s comedy by Scottish playwright William Douglas Home. In the earlier film it's Rex Harrison as the suave, urbane father and Sandra Dee (!) as his soon-to-be-launched-on-society daughter. Now, with a half-century update, the story still remains fresh, if somewhat far-fetched. Director Dennie Gordon, a student in the David E. Kelley Television School (Picket Fences, The Practice, Ally McBeal) and one other feature (The Adventures of Joe Dirt) handles her cast well within their loosely-drawn stereotypes. The photography by Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park, Ever After) is brilliantly primary, ably lighting up Bynes' remarkable skin tone.

What a Girl Wants is pretty much Bynes' movie, and the young star rises to the opportunity, even if her character suffers from a terminal case of too-perfect flagrant optimism. She's a spunky actress who brings to mind Kirsten Dunst in her Jumanji period. These gals could pass as sisters. But Bynes' fish-out-of-water Daphne is effervescence personified, and decked out in an abundance of elegant royal wear, she's a stunner. What a Girl Wants will undoubtedly please its intended young audience, and maybe provide a few diverting minutes of entertainment for the rest of us.

Directed by:
Dennie Gordon

Amanda Bynes
Colin Firth
Kelly Preston
Eileen Atkins
Anna Chancellor
Jonathan Pryce

Written by:
Jenny Bicks
Elizabeth Chandler

PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may not
be appropriate
for children.







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