Chasing Liberty, in which Mandy Moore plays the daughter of the president of the United States and yearns to win herself respite from the unrelenting gaze of the media, isn't particularly realistic. Nay, it is as predictably sunny and ordinary as an average day in Burbank. As if there were a statute of limitations on just how ordinary a light teen romance can allow itself to become, the very first sequence is that most inevitable of light teen romance sequences:
Mandy Moore stands before a mirror in jeans and T-shirt and proceeds to change into a slinky black dress, then an off-the-shoulder New Wave ensemble, then a fun little number accessorized with ample cleavage, a green halter top, snug jeans that flare out at the bottom, and boots with heels the thickness of a fiber-optic line. Having decided on the wardrobe for her first real date in eons - and giving a brisk, self-possessed nod of affirmation, of course - Mandy proceeds to jump on her bed, shout, and turn up her music.
'Tis in accordance with stipulation No. 11347 of the Unbreakable Law of January Movies: The first new movie of any new year must contain one luminous actress of tremendous potential, and be utterly indistinguishable by February. And yet, still, if I were a 14-year-old girl, this might be just the thing for those Back to School Blahs. It is a pure ditch-the-parental-units fantasy of teen freedom.
The camera pulls back, and we see that the view from Anna's bedroom window is no less than the back lawn of the White House. Her father, played with generic presidential authority by Mark Harmon, has declared that her social life will occur under a permanent Orange Alert. Which leads the First Lady (Caroline Goodall) to wonder:
"How can a president with a 63 percent approval rating have absolutely no knowledge of his teenage daughter?"
So anyway . . . Chasing Liberty isn't especially believable, or even of this planet. That's a revelation, however, which by now, if you are between the ages of 8 and 38, and are connected to a brain stem, should have solicited the following reaction:
Good. Just making sure you're paying attention. Anyone older can also now feel free to join in: Chasing Liberty virtually recycles the 1953 fantasy Roman Holiday, that cute little travelogue romance with Gregory Peck that transformed Audrey Hepburn from an unknown waif into a beloved star (and Academy Award-winning actress). Audrey played a sheltered princess who longed to get down in the gutter, or at least onto the back of a Vespa, and stalk among the common folk. The best of the recent pop star-turn-actress, Mandy has a big-screen vibrance that not only begs parallels to Hepburn, but begs the name of her agent:
Why is she still making movies like Chasing Liberty?
At least her character, Anna Foster, isn't quite so sheltered; we would have never believed it. She tells her father she longs to get to third base - "I mean, second base." What naivete Anna does possess is partly due to her being 18 years old (Moore herself is 19), and partly because, she is flanked at all hours by a small battalion of Secret Service agents who hover beside and follow behind with an index finger pressed to their earphones.
Her Secret Service code name is no less subtle: Liberty.
When dad jets off to Prague for a G8 summit, Anna decides to jump the wall and make her break. She goes wild at Roots concert and ditches her security detail. Thankfully, Europe is not crawling with terrorist cells and potential kidnappers but rather full of fun Rupert Everett prototypes snapping photos of chapels. The first hottie with a Vespa she can find is dreamy Ben, played by newcomer Matthew Goode with a refreshingly dry wit, considering his role as the generic romantic interest.
Well, sort of generic: The single clever idea in the entire film is that Ben is also Secret Service, and under direct orders from the president to shadow Anna and give her the illusion of freedom. The rest of this deceptive-lovers premise - starting from the first giggly moments of infatuation to the heartbreak of been duped, to the separation and reconciliation - you could just as well fill in without much help from me.
Besides, there is a far more mammoth tactical mistake at work here, one that will become apparent within minutes to anyone who is not the Unibomber: A presidential cutie pie like Mandy Moore, particularly one so suited to television and skilled at public relations as Anna Foster, would be a far bigger celebrity than Anna Foster. She would be bigger than Lady Di. She would be bigger than Amanda Bynes (What a Girl Wants) and Hillary Duff (The Lizzie McGuire Story) and the cast of The Princess Diaries (which Mandy co-starred in) put together, and unable to move even few steps in Europe without the pop of flashbulbs.
She would be bigger than Katie Holmes, who stars later this year in a virtually identical movie called First Daughter.
What these characters all share is more than a film about the desire to be young and free. That's an old story. There's something especially poignant, and more than a little disingenuous, that so many movies have arrived simultaneously that star young media figures playing young media figures who want a little breather. What's curious is how none of these films have anything pointedly interesting to say about that constant media glare. These characters embrace it, and they embrace their brief moment of freedom as just being art of the game, even as they shield their eyes. They never get to rage against the dying light.