A Cinderella Story
Directed by Mark Rosman. Starring Hilary Duff, Jennifer Coolidge, Chad Michael Murray, Dan Byrd, Regina King, Paul Rodriguez. (2004, PG, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 16, 2004
There’s something of a threat in A Cinderella Story’s cooing tagline, "Once upon a time … can happen anytime." "Really?" one worries. "Anytime?" It’s the ad-speak equivalent of a heightened terror alert: Warning, we could drop another Duff bomb on you at any time. That’s Hilary Duff, for those of you who canceled your Disney Channel subscription too long ago to know that network’s blond and bubbly star of The Lizzie Maguire Show. Duff’s latest tween-targeted exercise in wish-fulfillment fantasy struggles mightily to squeeze itself into the trappings of a fairy tale, but this modernized Cinderella story demands an excessive degree of suspension of disbelief. (Case in point: Child labor laws would have landed the evil stepmother in jail faster than Duff could click the heels of her glass slippers and say, "There’s no place like the attic sty my big, bad stepmama confines me to.") Actually, there are no glass slippers in A Cinderella Story – the lost slipper has been replaced by a misplaced cell phone – but the bare bones of the thing are the same. Cinderella is now San Fernando Valley girl Sam Martin (Duff), who’s stuck with stepmom Fiona (Coolidge) and her twin brats when Sam’s father dies during an earthquake. Now 16, Sam must labor day and night – picking up the dry cleaning, preparing her stepmother’s all-salmon diet, and toiling at the family business, her father’s old restaurant that has now been reappropriated in all pink as "Fiona’s Diner." Sam gets by on her hopes of attending Princeton (where else for a fairy princess to matriculate?) and the companionship of an anonymous – but totally dreamy – cyberpal, whom she met in a Princeton chat room and has since fallen in love with via those time-honored vehicles of wooing, e-mail and text messaging. (Note to self: Must resist urge to defame a love built on emoticons and "LOL" shorthand.) What Sam doesn’t know is that Prince Charming is actually Austin Aimes (an unbearably cheekboned-and-squinty-eyed Murray), the high school quarterback who’s too scared to let the world know he’s well-versed in Tennyson. Eventually, they meet up at the Halloween dance, but Sam keeps her identity masked; from here on out, there’s a lot of tedious hemming and hawing – should she unmask herself? – broken up by "comic" set-pieces with her stepfamily that draw mainly from the poop-in-the-pool school of humor. Coolidge – so skilled at parody in Christopher Guest’s Best in Show – has become a parody of herself, or at least a parody of the same dim persona she plays in every film, and A Cinderella Story’s supporting cast of talented character actors, like Regina King and Paul Rodriguez, is slumming it, plain and simple. Duff is all right, in an entirely bland sort of way, and the less said about her Prince Charming the better – although, come to think of it, one of the heartier laughs here is watching WB star Chad Michael Murray try not to move his lips as he reads e-mail from Sam. It isn’t all the actors’ faults, of course. You can’t, ahem, turn straw into gold, and straw – dull, brittle, lousy to taste – is entirely what director Mark Rosman and first-time screenwriter Leigh Dunlap deliver.