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What a Girl Wants
2003 - PG - 100 Mins.
Director: Dennie Gordon
Producer: Denise Di Novi
Written By: Jenny Bicks, Elizabeth Chandler, William Douglas Home
Starring: Colin Firth, Amanda Bynes, Kelly Preston, Jonathan Pryce, Eileen Atkins
Review by: Marc Eastman
There’s an old saying that goes, “He is no man who is not willing to look the fool for the sake of his child.” That might seem to have little to do with ‘What a Girl Wants’, and I’m inclined to admit that it doesn’t having anything to do with it, not really, but it impressed me that Colin Firth and Dame Eileen Atkins were willing to be a part of this film.

‘What a Girl Wants’ is a story you’ve seen before, and you’re going to be hard-pressed (I predict) to find a review that doesn’t mention its predictability. Well, call me Kreskin, but I will go them all one further and tell you that I could predict everything that was going to happen from watching the trailer. I’m not particularly impressed with that criticism though, being that it’s true of at least three-quarters of all movies. This is not, whatever it may be, a movie that is trying to stump you. Besides which, it’s based on a play and movie that were written in the 50's, and the premise was at least 100 years old then.

‘What a Girl Wants’ is the story of Daphne Reynolds (Amanda Bynes - Nickelodeon’s ‘The Amanda Show’). Daphne, 17, is the love-child (a term I’ve never much understood, considering an attempt at a handy negation of the idea) of Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth) and Libby Reynolds (Kelly Preston). Libby, a hippyish, American musician. Dashwood, from a noble family in England. Henry’s family disapproves naturally, and a bit of subterfuge breaks them apart. Unbeknownst to Henry, Libby was pregnant.

After her seventeenth birthday, Daphne flies to London to meet her father. Unfortunately, she finds Henry with a new fiancee. Said fiancee, naturally, has a daughter Daphne’s age. These other women in Henry’s life, along with his advisor, serve as the villains of the story, and are only interested in Henry doing his best to further his career. They get to move themselves up the social ladder that way.

Henry’s mother (Eileen Atkins) is a source of what might be called ‘the reasonable’ in the household occupied by those trying to get rid of Daphne, and Henry himself who is so befuddled as to be virtually useless a large part of the time. It is, lest you get the wrong idea, a solid, heart-felt, Jimmy Stewart sort of befuddled.

Throw into the mix that Daphne meets a guy of less than noble birth, and that Henry is currently involved in a political campaign, and you’ve got the story pretty well wrapped up. You may know what’s going to happen every step of the way, but frankly, outsmarting anything that will eventually end up in the family section of the video store doesn’t impress me.

It’s a simple movie, yes. Moreover, it does a lot of things wrong. But, whether or not it’s good isn’t quite that simple. It’s actually quite good.

It’s odd (or simply convenient) to have seen ‘What a Girl Wants’ so soon after viewing ‘Evelyn’, as both movies have extremely similar failings. ‘What a Girl Wants’, however, is much more able to get away with them. Both movies are filled with some fine acting. Indeed, Amanda Bynes, has an inescapable likability the likes of which we haven’t seen since perhaps Bob Crane (the on-screen Bob Crane, not the easy to dislike real Bob Crane). Nevertheless, both movies are also filled with villains of a caliber that should never be allowed out of the fairy tales and comic-books where we first met them. Though it goes too far in this movie, the movie is not terribly far from a fairy tale. So, though we aren’t happy about it, we can let it go. We also let it go, because we see the movie struggling with its attempt. This leads directly to the other serious flaw in the movie, and that is its own lack of self-esteem. It’s a movie that, though it knows it is really just a silly, family movie, is nevertheless trying to actually have some intelligence thrown in. Like a precocious child attempting to move on to bigger and better things, it sometimes lapses into a desperate reach for the comforting arms of the familiar (such as the caricature ‘bad guys’, and the roll-your-eyes ‘locked in the closet’ scene). But, like that precocious child, it does so realizing that it’s mostly reflex, and it catches itself as best it can, and moves on.

Though this is a movie that is largely attempting to capitalize on the popularity of its star (and that’s a popularity among early-teen girls), it’s also a movie that chooses Little Feat as Henry’s favorite band of the seventies. A band, even among bands of the seventies, that its target audience wouldn’t know from a hole in the wall. And, it’s a movie that realizes that a scene of arriving in London and riding in a classic, red, double-decker accompanied by music that is not The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ would be pure folly. Another band that the movies aspired to demographic couldn’t care less about.

‘What a Girl Wants’ also has no small amount of appreciably witty lines that either assume much about teenage girls, or at the very least respect other viewers. Either works for me.

Whether the movie works or not, to be confusingly honest, is anyone’s guess really. Frankly, whether or not anything in the genre of ‘family movie aimed specifically at young girls’ works has always been something I’d prefer to leave as somebody else’s guess. I think it does work though, and I think it makes rather a stride for the genre. While there was almost nothing about ‘The Princess Diaries’ (a thematic mirror of our story here) that I could mark as not being utterly infantile and/or as boring as could be, I was able to quite enjoy ‘What a Girl Wants’. Sure, you have to adjust yourself to the sort of movie you’re watching, but the difference is that you are able to adjust yourself to ‘What a Girl Wants’.

Colin Firth is not only delightful to watch, able to add credibility to something not above realizing that it’s just a little, cornball movie, but he’s also able to project a sort of magnanimous view of the role he plays and the movie itself, and he makes you prone to such a state of mind as well. His befuddled surprise, trademark (the character’s that is) inability to break away from being led by those around him, and his reserved, ‘inner turmoil’ expression of emotion, are as real as everything about his fiancee is, unfortunately, fake.

Eileen Atkins, again, as Henry’s mother, delivers more high-level acting in a role with very few lines, but an adequate amount of screen-time, than one deserves to encounter in a vehicle which, let’s face it, cannot be described without using the word ‘goofy’. In what can easily be seen as a wry smirk at her role in ‘Gosford Park’, most of Atkins performance comes by way of emotionally-charged expressions from across the room.

Amanda Bynes is not the greatest actress you’ve ever seen, but she isn’t at all bad either. She more than measures up to the task at hand, and that isn’t quite so simple as you might think. ‘The Princess Diaries’, yes. This movie, not really. Whether she’s a great actress or not, be prepared to see a lot more of her. The camera loves her. She’s almost too cute to stand, but in a good way. She’s full of bounce and pep, leading to the only scene of a teenage girl dancing around alone in a room (out of thousands, mind you) that convinced me that maybe someone actually does that. She also has a smile such that when she delivers the puppy face to her boyfriend saying, ‘Pleeeease’, you know he doesn’t stand a chance.

This marks, though Kelly Preston isn’t exactly magnificent here and hardly exists in the other one, the second underrated movie Preston’s been in this year. She hardly stands out here, but she fits the role rather well.

All of this, more or less, was more succinctly expressed upon leaving the theater when my wife asked me what I thought of the movie. “I approve,” I answered, and there you have it really.

It’s a fun, semi-silly, movie that’s mostly for teenagers, but it sets out with the specific intention of not being stupid, and succeeds, mostly. It’s the same old story, but it’s a new, more upbeat, quirky version, and (keeping Kelly Preston in mind) it’s actually rather ‘View from the Top’ish (only for teenagers). It actually has some heart, the chief goal and worst failing of nearly everything else in the genre, and it is, given that it is what is, supremely watchable. Being that the movie has no right to aspire to five-star status, its 3.5 star rating should be seen in the best possible light.

The story, by the way, is based on the play and later screen adaptation by William Douglas Home. The original (in some sense) movie is ‘The Reluctant Debutante’ from 1958, which starred: Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall, Sandra Dee, and Angela Lansbury, and went rather a different direction.
Movie Guru Rating
Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental. Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental. Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental. Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental.
  3.5 out of 5 stars

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