What A Girl Wants

on April 04, 2003 by Bridget Byrne
What a girl wants is a much better script, especially if she's a girl with Amanda Bynes' talent. This popular TV teen star is woefully served by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler's clunky, ill-informed “What a Girl Wants.” This is a paint-by-numbers update of a romantic comedy titled “The Reluctant Debutante,” originally penned by William Douglas Home for the much more structured uptight 1950s, when American and British youth knew less about each other's manners and mores than they do today.

Bynes has charm, dignity, wit and sensitivity, which she holds on to as best she can even when asked to take completely unnecessary pratfalls or act out some incredible false moment. Her portrait of a cute, clever and essentially well-meaning all-American girl is believable, even when the scenes she's plonked into are utter silly nonsense.

The efforts here to satirize the upper-crust English society, which Bynes as Daphne penetrates in the hope of establishing a relationship with a father who didn't know of her existence, are crass, ill-executed renditions based on superficial concepts. Peopling this high life with such cheap gimmicks as crude look-alikes of the British Royal Family and crashing chandeliers, set among cobbled together images of stately mansions and famous sporting venues, further destroys any sense of reality that might have made for a genuine, sweet, witty film fable about the power of a loving family circle. As it is, the moments of the film that do work are the tender, thoughtful, confrontational encounters between Daphne and her dad, Henry. He's played, also with charm, dignity, wit and sensitivity (excluding a silly scene in which he gyrates in tight leather pants) by Colin Firth, able, remarkably, to put across another interesting take on the constipated romantic Brit, who's actually much more complex and intriguing than the posh twit he initially appears. It's the sort of role that Firth has mastered many times before, notably as Mr. Darcy in a television production of “Pride and Prejudice,” ad as the ultimate right guy, also a Mr. Darcy, in “Bridget Jones' Diary.” It's interesting to see him work the same skills in a paternal role and he finds an excellent match in Bynes, who, despite her youth, has honed her talents for years in her own television variety show and the WB sitcom “What I Like About You.”

Also to be liked are Kelly Preston, who seems utterly at ease in the role of Daphne's glamorous singer mom, and Eileen Atkins, who draws all the pith possible from the cliché lines of Henry's tartly sensible old mum. Oliver James, as the outside-the-fold British lad who catches Daphne's fancy and conveniently turns up at the social occasions as band singer or valet parker, has suitable confidence to match up to Bynes.

But cliché lines and scenes abound, and some of the roles are so heavy-handedly written there's no way of overcoming the built-in problems. Chief victim of this is Jonathan Pryce, who simply smirks and smarms his way though the role of Henry's scheming political advisor with aspirations to become his father-in-law. Also stuck with very unimaginative versions of the wicked stepmother and daughter roles are Anna Chancellor as Henry's social climber fiancée and Christina Cole as her bitchy offspring.

The film is crammed with songs, some performed adequately enough by the “singers” of the script, Preston and James, but the opportunity to showcase them effectively as emotional pointers in the storyline is unfilled, so they come across mainly as just filler for a soundtrack album. Starring Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth, Kelly Preston, Eileen Atkins, Anna Chancellor and Jonathan Price. Directed by Dennie Gordon. Written by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler. Produced by Denise Di Novi, Bill Gerber and Hunt Lowry. A Warner Bros. release. Romantic comedy. Rated PG for mild language. Running time: 104 min

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