Hilary Duff, TV's "Lizzie McGuire," meets the man of her dreams, sort of and maybe, in 2004's "A Cinderella Story," the updated but thoroughly formulaic variation on the old fairy tale.
Screenwriter Leigh Dunlap, whose script appears to be a first-time affair, attempts to cram as much of the Cinderella yarn as possible into a modern teenage setting, and the contortions required for it to work don't do justice to either story. Things simply feel pretentious, out of place, twisted to fit a preconceived model, forcing the viewer at every turn to try and second guess how the screenplay is going to manage to bring in this fairy-tale idea or that. In the beginning of the movie, I figured Dunlap was going to name the main character Cindy, but I guess that might have been too obvious. Instead, it's Sam, for Samantha.
Sam (Hilary Duff) is a high school senior whose single dad some years earlier married a shrew, Fiona (Jennifer Collidge), with two incredibly stupid daughters, unidentical twins Briana and Gabriella (Madeline Zima and Andrea Avery). Then the father died, leaving Sam in the care of the evil stepmother. Sam was immediately banished to living in the attic, and for the next eight years worked night and day, hand and foot, serving the mother and daughters, continuously being told by her step-relations that she was dumb and ugly.
Enter Austin (Chad Michael Murray), the coolest guy on campus. He and Sam, unbeknownst to one another, strike up an anonymous e-mail correspondence and fall in love without ever meeting. (As though most of us haven't seen "You've Got Mail.") But they plan to meet at a ball, a homecoming masquerade dance, where Sam dresses as Cinderella and Austin coincidentally dresses as Prince Charming. When they meet, Austin doesn't recognize Sam as a fellow classmate because she's wearing a tiny mask over her eyes. Sort of like how nobody knows that Clark Kent is Superman because he takes his glasses off. Anyway, Sam has to leave the dance before the stroke of midnight to be to work in the family business, an all-night diner, and Austin never finds out who she really is.
But...she drops her cell phone in her rush to leave. (So, what were you expecting, a glass slipper?) The rest of the movie relates their experiences trying to find one another again and get back together.
Oh, and besides the Charming costume, what's Austin's relationship to a Prince? Well, you see, he's planning to go to Princeton. Cute. Too cute. Like most of the movie. What's more, in another monumental coincidence, Sam is also planning to go to Princeton! A Prince and a Princess at Princeton.
Rather than anything original or humorous or, heaven forbid, romantic developing from this fable, we get only tired clichés and worn-out stereotypes of the kind found in every bad teen comedy ever made. Sam has a sweet, goofy friend, Carter (Dan Byrd), and a sweet, faithful friend, Rhonda (Regina King). For laughs, people fall down a lot, bump into things like locker doors, and chase each other around in cars and on foot. Parents and teachers are all idiots or nonexistent. The "in" girls are all nasty, bitchy snobs. The "in" guys are all super cool. And every student in high school is upper middle class and beautiful to boot.
Moreover, Austin is not only the most popular guy on campus, he's the student body president and the captain of the football team. And Sam considers herself plain and homely, because she's been told that so often, while the audience can see from the outset that she's the cutest girl in school.
The movie was directed by Mark Rosman, who may have been chosen for the job because he directed Ms. Duff in one of her "Lizzie McGuire" TV shows. But I remember Rosman as the director of "The House on Sorority Row," one of the most god-awful slasher movies in history. Not a propitious association.
Everything that happens in "A Cinderella Story" is telegraphed about two days in advance, but I have to admit I did laugh once at something Sam's stepsisters say. However, one laugh in ninety minutes is hardly worth the effort, nor is the wholly manipulative ending worth the wait. Most adolescent female comedies seem pretty silly and vacuous to me, not unexpected since I am not a part of the movie's target audience of adolescent females, but the fact is "A Cinderella Story" makes most of its competition look good. Where are the Olsen twins when you need them?
The colors in this anamorphic widescreen presentation are as natural as you could want. Usually, in a comedy of this sort, the screen is awash in brilliant, unrealistic hues, but this time we're fooled and the image is quite truthful and lifelike. However, the definition is not perfect, with some minor indistinctness to the picture, some slight, hazy color bleed-through. The screen dimensions measure about 1.74:1 across my standard-screen HD television, and, overall, the transfer is free of digital artifacts, grain, moiré effects, or halos.
To be honest with you, I wasn't even aware through most of this movie that it even had sound. The dialogue is irrelevant, and there are no special effects. So there's not a lot for the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio to do. There is hardly any surround sound, nor is the front-channel stereo particularly wide. But it is all very clear and clean and well balanced, which is a blessing, even if the frequency and dynamic ranges are limited.
Most of the extras are of the ordinary and expected variety, apt accompaniment to an ordinary film of ordinary expectations. There's an audio commentary by Hilary Duff and other cast members, referred to as "Hanging Out With Hilary and Friends," as though we were all part of one big, happy gang. Then, there is an eight-minute featurette, "Cinderella Couture: The Making of a Fashionably Modern Fairy Tale," which deals mainly with the film's costumes and makeup. After that is a "Find Your Prince/Princess Challenge" where you answer questions to find your own true love. Sisters Hilary and Hallie Duff do a music video together, "Our Lips are Sealed," and there are about two minutes of uneventful additional scenes and eight minutes of blurry screen tests. Twenty-six scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer round out the bonus materials. English and French are the spoken language choices, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
In all fairness, "A Cinderella Story" is not as bad as the Olsen twins' "New York Minute," because at least there is a plot involved, however silly or contrived it may be. But that's not saying much. The whole thing's still nowhere near as good as the original fairy tale. By comparison, Drew Barrymore's "Ever After" is as delightful a retelling of the old tale as "A Cinderella Story" is drab. I'd highly recommend the 1998 Barrymore film over this 2004 retread any day.