I hadn’t really intended to watch another Hilary Duff movie this month (if ever), but ITV were showing A Cinderella Story (2004) last Sunday, and like a sugar-addled moth to a spluttering flame, I set my recorder.
For those who don’t know, this teen rom-com is a modern “re-imagining” of the classic fairy tale, starring Duff as the overlooked skivvy step-daughter (‘Samantha’), Jennifer Coolidge as her crass, nouveau-riche step-mom/slave-driver (‘Fiona’,), and Chad Michael Murray as her “Prince Charming”, the jock-with-a-poet’s-soul (‘Austin’).
First the plus points: Duff is definitely starting to grow on me… and her character here is far more sympathetic than the others I’ve seen her play. She gives a warm, winning performance, and looks truly stunning in her ball gown (and super-cute in everything else)… but once again she’s undermined by an insultingly stupid script. Coolidge got a couple of chuckles out of me with her reliably off-kilter delivery (and what I presume were a few improvised lines), but this sort of role isn’t exactly a huge stretch for her, is it? Has she ever played a properly evil villain, rather than just a cartoony schemer? I think I’d pay good money to see that.
Now the minus points (no surprise, this will be the longer section): Simon Helberg’s atrocious geeksploitation cameo as ‘Terrence’, a poorly-defined walking punchline, who supposedly believes he’s an alien or some bullshit like that. He actually looks pretty cool when he dresses as ‘Neo’ (from The Matrix) for the costume ball… but they have him act like such a dork, it totally spoils the effect. Shame. Curiously (inevitably?), the biggest problems this movie has, as far as the plot is concerned, are a direct result of the “re-imagining” process. In the original story, Cinderella and Charming are total strangers, who would never normally interact… they meet for a single magical night, before parting suddenly… and the Prince has to rally all the resources at his disposal to track down his true love again. Swoon! In this version, Cinderella and Charming both go to the same high school, and when they aren’t in class she works at a diner that he eats in, and he works at a car wash that she uses! Since meeting (anonymously) in an internet chat-room for future Princeton applicants, the two of them have been texting and e-mailing each other (anonymously) for several months, and finally agree to meet at the school’s Halloween dance. If Samantha’s mask had actually covered her face properly, then I might have been able to buy him not recognising her as the oft-mocked “Diner Girl” during their date… but as you can see, all it really hides are her eyebrows. If he’d been the sort of arrogant snob who blanked serving staff, it might have made some sense, but Austin is actually very considerate to the waitresses when he goes into the diner, and must have made eye-contact with Samantha a hundred times or more! Meh!
But, even if you’re willing to cut the writers some slack and suspend your disbelief that far, for the sake of their romantic “first meeting”, it only gets more ludicrous from there on in. They flirt, they gab, they dance (very close and very slow), they have a magical, memorable time, before she has to dash off suddenly, without a word of explanation, and without revealing her “secret” identity. Oh no! How will he ever find her again? Well, he knows that she goes to his school, so that’s a pretty good start… he also knows her height, her hair colour, her eye colour, her body-type, her body-language, what her voice sounds like, and how she talks… not to mention the fact he’s pretty much seen the entirety of her face… and yet, THE DUMB-ASS, MUSCLE-HEAD MUTHAF*CKA STILL DOESN’T RECOGNISE HER WHEN THEY HAVE A CASUAL CHAT IN THE DINER A FEW DAYS LATER!!! GAH!!! THIS BOY DOESN’T DESERVE LOVE!!! [ahem] Almost as frustrating is Samantha’s pointless, plot-dictated decision to continue concealing her identity, even though Austin is clearly her soul-mate (and kinda hunky to boot). Again, I could buy it if she were a lowly floor-scrubber, and he were a bona fide member of the royal family… clearly there’d be all sorts of hurdles to overcome there… but she works in her step-mother’s diner, and he works at his father’s car wash! They’re both basically upper-working-class/lower-middle-class white Americans, they’re both aiming to attend the same college the following year, and she already knows that they have a ton of things in common because of all the e-mails and texts they’ve exchanged… so I really don’t get what she was supposed to be so afraid of.
Basically, the writers needed to pad the story out to feature length, and couldn’t think of any coherent or organic ways to keep the couple apart, so they fell back on ridiculous contrivances that would only make sense if the main characters were total and utter morons. In which case they shouldn’t even be applying to Princeton in the first place. (Note: Samantha sets her heart on that particular college because when she was a little girl her father joked that it was where Princes and Princesses went. Ick!)
Conclusion: Fairy tales – Magic = Stupid