They ought to have merely called it What a Princess Diaries Girl Wants and been done with it.
No, it’s not unwatchably awful. And if you’re a girl — or a dreadfully romantic boy — between the ages of 11 and 15, it’s probably even pretty good, and you’re less likely to be distracted by the chipmunk-cheeked Amanda Bynes’ striking resemblance to Linda Blair in Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Not being in the movie’s obvious target audience, I kept hoping Bynes would conjure up a plague of locusts or at least rotate her head 360 degrees. Alas, this didn’t happen, but I didn’t find the movie actually painful, even if it landed lamentably wide of the mark as a Princess Diaries clone.
The idea probably looked good on paper: First, find a suitable source (William Douglas Home’s play The Reluctant Debutante, already filmed in 1958 by Vincente Minnelli with Sandra Dee in the Bynes role). Second, line up some respectable talent to help get Bynes through, and then …
Well, it’s partly the “and then” that proved to be the banana skin under the collective feet of the persons who conjured this project into being. And then … did they go out and hire an old hand at comedy to bring the thing to fruition? The Princess Diaries had Garry Marshall at the helm. This film has Dennie Gordon, whose only theatrical credit is the cosmically ghastly Joe Dirt. Most of Gordon’s work has been as a hired gun on TV series — and it shows. He’s obviously uncomfortable with this wide-screen, attempted-high-gloss production (it hardly mattered what the grungy Joe Dirt looked like).
Not only is his direction uninspired, but he’s turned in a film so slapdash that some scenes aren’t even clearly in focus (the whole movie is soft looking, its colors washed out). And the editing is, to say the least, clumsy. Gordon’s flat-footed staging of many scenes really telegraphs the movie’s stage origins, making much of the film seem like a forced high-school play. Granted, this isn’t going to worry the movie’s target audience, but it won’t do much to endear the film to anyone past the age of 16.
Whereas The Princess Diaries was a movie a family could enjoy, What a Girl Wants is the kind of film kids are packed off to while the adults wander off to see Phone Booth. In its favor is a good — if predictable — performance from Colin Firth and a very funny turn by Eileen Atkins, whose presence really keeps the picture afloat. The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler has its moments. They preserve much of the original’s concept of a teenage girl hooking up with her estranged father and being “brought out” to London society, while skillfully updating parts of the idea. They even throw in a nice nod to the original by having Colin Firth ruefully guess that the musician his daughter is besotted with is a drummer (as he was in the original).
Nothing very surprising happens, of course, but that’s part of the point — this is comfort-food moviemaking. You know exactly what you’re going to get, and you’d be disappointed if it turned out to be something else. But there’s no law that says comfort food can’t be served up with style, and that’s exactly what’s missing here.