starring Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth, Kelly Preston, Anna Chancellor
screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler, based on the play "The Reluctant Debutante" by William Douglas Home
directed by Dennie Gordon
by Walter Chaw A cynical play for the babysitting money of a very particular demographic, What a Girl Wants is a by-the-numbers Cinderella story that's not only a carbon copy of The Princess Diaries but also the umpteenth iteration of a distaff preteen fantasy that equates irreverent immaturity with being true to one's own self. It takes potshots at the stuffiness of the British in the same way that urban comedies take aim at the stuffiness of white folks, seeking to loosen up the awkward unfortunates with a pathetic dance sequence. And it offers Nickelodeon phenom Amanda Bynes yet another opportunity to try on a bunch of outfits in not one, but two dress-up montages. The film believes that it knows what will please twelve-year-old girls (and their thirty-five-year old fathers), and it may well indeed, but the problem with What a Girl Wants is that there's precious little honour in satisfying the basest needs of its audience with the equivalent of leftover porridge.
Folk singer Libby (Kelly Preston) falls off a camel in Morocco and into the arms of Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth); one whirlwind (dust devil?) romance later and the pair find themselves married by a Bedouin priest and then in Jolly Ol' England to be "married for real" in a non-heathen church. But Libby is dispatched back to the States by evil family advisor Alastair (Jonathan Pryce) with a bun in the oven that will eventually be named Daphne (Bynes). Seventeen years later, Daphne journeys to the UK to renew relations with Lord Henry and, in the process, thaw the frigid Brits. What a Girl Wants is worse than stupid and rote--it's casually offensive.
Based as loosely as can possibly be imagined on William Douglas Home's play "The Reluctant Debutante" (already made into a 1958 Vincente Minnelli film starring Rex Harrison and Sandra Dee), What a Girl Wants takes on the dimensions of a weird teensploitation melodrama wherein the equivalent of an evil stepsister (Christina Cole) competes with our heroine for the attentions of the would-be prince charming. A pivotal dance is shot in a way that's romantic and verging on the inappropriate while uncomfortable parallels unfold between the motorcycle courtship of Libby and Henry and Daphne and Henry. Either Joe Dirt director Dennie Gordon doesn't have a clue what she's doing (most likely), or the picture is plumbing new depths in a mad grab for subtext and weight.
What a Girl Wants is discordant and completely disinteresting for anyone who isn't committed from the start to being charmed by Bynes's young-Julia Roberts pratfalls, bad behaviour, and preening. Reflecting her almost-not-a-minor status, a medium-steamy love scene with heartthrob Ian (Oliver James) in the bottom of a boat and, later, an eyelash-flapping moment of sexy-innocent manipulation resonates almost as inappropriately as the father/daughter/daughter love triangle. What resonates most, however, is the near complete lack of sophistication in the writing and filmmaking, which makes all of the scenes set-ups without payoffs--and all of the characters cardboard scrims that look suspiciously like the personas that the actors have been cultivating for their careers. It's clock-punching and sleepwalking as mass entertainment, the sort of thing that people mean when they refer to the steady decline of our culture. Originally published: April 4, 2003.