I know I’m not in the demographic for this movie. After all, it’s a long time since I was in the 12-to-18 age range, and I’ve never been a girl as a part of that (or any other) group. I also know that I’m supposed to intensely dislike this latest Mandy Moore offering.
The problem is that I don’t dislike it — intensely or otherwise. I can’t say I exactly like it either. And I have to admit that at 105 minutes, the movie feels pretty padded as it lumbers toward its foregone conclusion.
However, I found Chasing Liberty surprisingly pleasant in many regards, and pleasantly surprising in others. Of course, part of this can be laid at the feet of actress Mandy Moore. When her star vehicle How to Deal opened, I wrote: “The camera loves her and the kid can actually act. Better still, she has the happy facility of being sweet without being saccharine.” Well, apart from a fairly unfortunate drunk scene in this film, that hasn’t changed. If anything, at the advanced age of 19, Moore is turning into an even better actress. She has a precise way of delivering a line so on-target, it’s almost uncanny. Unfortunately, Moore has yet to find herself in a film that’s worthy of her seemingly effortless acting skills — and Chasing Liberty doesn’t change this.
While the screenplay by first-timers Derek Guiley and David Schneiderman isn’t actively bad, it’s too grounded in an overly familiar plot to ever be very good either. Since there’s no story credit — though, undoubtedly, the whole thing was cobbled together by a committee — these fellows must shoulder the responsibility for the overfamiliarity, too. So what did they do? They gave themselves a lame retread of everything from It Happened One Night (and its instant remakes Red Salute and Love on the Run) to The Bride Came C.O.D. and Roman Holiday, and then pretty credibly turned the finished product into passable entertainment.
Moore plays Anna, the 18-year-old daughter of U.S. President James Foster (Mark Harmon) — and her dream, above all, is to have a normal life. When her father breaks his promise to have an outing of hers in Prague only overseen by two Secret Service agents, Anna takes it on the lam with the aid of hunky Brit biker Ben Calder (Matthew Goode) — who, of course, turns out to be a Secret Service agent himself. President Foster entrusts Anna to Ben’s care (without her knowledge) so she can enjoy the illusion of freedom.
Yes, we all know where this will lead, don’t we? And drag us there it does — complete with all the stock misunderstandings this aged plot requires. On the plus side, the script manages to be pretty engagingly written within the confines of this thin narrative formula. Moreover, Liberty is surprisingly adult and savvy for a “teen flick.” So much so, in fact, that parents may find parts of it somewhat alarming — as when Anna’s friend Gabrielle (Beatrice Rosen, Undercover) starts to blurt out what some boys find appealing about her tongue piercing. (At the same time, if a kid gets the joke, it’s hardly “corrupting,” now is it?) Similarly, Anna’s ultimate relationship with Ben is pretty adult — and a lot more believable than the usual chaste encounters common to this type of film. It’s also a surprise — though a more cerebral one — to find an 18-year-old discussing Offenbach, Verdi and Puccini!
Much of the story’s weakness is glossed over by the surprisingly clever and sophisticated filmmaking of TV director Andy Cadiff. I admit I snorted when I saw the over- and misused term “A Film by Andy Cadiff” at the movie’s opening — yet by Liberty‘s end, I felt the director had earned that billing for reasons beyond just smart contractual negotiations.
Cadiff keeps the film moving with wit and style — and a fine eye for location shooting. He gives us a moment where the screen is matted off to the shape of a TV (a la Brother Bear), from which he then expands the image into a truly startling wide-screen panorama. And his handling of the film’s final scene on an opera house — where he orchestrates the movements and events to fit the sounds of “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot — is a small miracle of filmmaking that could have, in lesser hands, wound up being unbearably corny.
Matthew Goode is at least a marginal improvement over Moore’s usual leading men/boys, but Martin Hancock (Liam) as a morally dubious eccentric steals every scene he’s in. Jeremy Piven and Annabella Sciorra, meanwhile, help give the film a boost as a pair of battling Secret Service agents whose romance mirrors that of Anna’s and Ben’s.
Sure, in the final analysis, Liberty is so insubstantial that it threatens to evaporate right off the screen, but it’s far from unpleasant and amazingly well done for what it is. Now if someone would just hand Moore and Cadiff projects that equal their talents, we’d really be onto something.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke