Here's my concern about A Cinderella Story, the new Hilary Duff vehicle: I liked it. It's a clunky little gem that grows on you and truly brings "up to date" the oft told saga of the put-upon beauty and her cruel stepfamily. Yes, I was mesmerized as I pondered Hilary Duff's salary cap. Yes, I kept thinking about what modern au-go-go teen would deign to like this. And yes, I'm aware that its TV-movie feel is due primarily to its TV-movie director, Mark Rosman, but... I liked it.
This modern fairy tale starts off smart by hooking us with a sympathetic hero. Eight-year-old Sam is shown with her single Dad, the owner of a San Fernando Valley diner and his "family" of employees. Dad (Whip Hubley) even reads little Sam bedtime stories. But when he is taken from us by the Northridge Earthquake... O-kay... Sam is left with her stepmother (the ever marvelous Jennifer Coolidge) and two gawky, evil stepsisters -- and summarily exiled to the attic.
Eight years later, Sam has transformed into Hilary Duff. Under the fat thumb of her step mom who's got her scrubbing floors at the diner, Sam pines to go to Princeton and, on the way, find true love if she can. Buddied up with her best friend Carter (Dan Byrd) an aspiring drama nerd, Sam is the butt of jokes by the mean girls at high school who've dubbed her Diner Girl. But though things look bleak, there's a prince of a guy who's the star quarterback and one of those teen stars with three names: Chad Michael Murray.
And because this is an update of the Cinderella story (thus its rather plain title), we have technology instead of a fairy godmother. Sam, it turns out, has a secret admirer she corresponds with via tech messages on her cell phone and on the Internet. It's Chad, of course, revealing to Sam his inner need go against his father's wishes and not go to USC (smart kid) and the pain of having to be "the prince." And because we know these two are meant to be together, the costumed Halloween Hop is the perfect rendevous. With a little help from the gang at work, Sam gets a makeover and a mask to hide her identity and she and Chad finally meet. But when her cell phone strikes twelve, Diner Girl must return to the Diner, leaving Chad hanging, with only a memory, and his two extra names.
What could be a by-the-book retelling is in fact a nice essay on the trials of finding inner strength. I know that's a stretch, but I like movies with a moral, especially a moral that provides hope, and this one actually has more going on than it first appears. Chad is indeed torn by his father's dreams for him, and Hilary is just about right for a modern Cinderella, pretty enough to clean up for the ball, average enough to be a believable wage slave. And their working class values seem real and noble. Both kids work! I like that. And both kids take on the responsibility of growing up and facing their flaws. By the time the movie ends in a rain-soaked and triumphant kiss, I bought it. And the medicine goes down nicely thanks to some wonderful character acting and some clever screenwriting from first timer Leigh Dunlop.
Prime among the fun is Jennifer Coolidge and if you take your eyes off step mom in any scene she's in you're missing out. Famous for her turns as the manicurist/goddess in the Legally Blonde series, Coolidge does more with botox jokes, tanning booths and the Beverly Hills Salmon Diet than one could hope. Watch her in a fairly basic car-out-of-control scene in which her freshly botoxed face shows NO EMOTION and you have to laugh. And even when the focus isn't on her, she'll be doing something -- idly pushing her breasts into place, staring into space thinking about her next meal, or using a toothpick to punctuate an exit. Also funny are mummy's evil "twins" Gabriella (Andrea Avery) and Brianna (Madeline Zima).
I worry however about who will like this PG dish. It's the type of movie I wish would be accepted more by audiences. I hope it is. There are some movies like this that are aimed at teens, ones that I have a passing interest in, and want to do well. But when I think about the real world and real teens, I can only imagine the cool kids saying no thanks and leaving only the lonely, gangly kind, sad little geeks who dutifully put on their Josie And The Pussycats ears and awkwardly wait by the mailbox hoping for that autographed picture of Melissa Joan Hart. I love those kids. I feel for them. And God wasn't I one in my own way. But maybe that's what the Cinderella tale is all about, the hope that someday we will grow past this phase of our development and win one for a change. For a major motion picture, at least A Cinderella Story has its heart is in the right place.
And that's a start.