Julia Stiles is the voice of the phone company, the voice of customer service. Not officially, only spiritually. Stiles sounds like the phone company sounds when you call the phone company because you owe money or you want your bill adjusted. She sounds brittle, sarcastic, bloodless, dismissive. And never mind that voice. You do not want to cross her path, either, for fear that withering look of contempt she possesses will flash like lightning across the sky and root you to your spot.
I've never warmed to her collection of smug teenagers and slightly misanthropic know-it-alls. I'm not sure she cares if anyone does. She shouldn't. Stiles specializes in characters who assume (often correctly) they're the smartest one in the room: her Wellesley College student in Mona Lisa Smile and her high school students in 10 Things I Hate About You and Save the Last Dance are her calling cards, but I've always connected her as that assassin in The Bourne Identity, surrounded by computer gear.
Blue, cold steel suits her.
Hollywood, though, wants you to think of Stiles as a romantic lead. Maybe because there aren't many places for a young unapologetically smart actress to go right now. This may take some getting used to, but for the time being Martha Coolidge's The Prince & Me is evidence Stiles can pull off warm and fuzzy. She brings an impatience to romantic fantasy that's totally welcome. Romantic fantasies, especially about commoners like you and me hooking up with royalty, are all about delaying the obvious. But Stiles' snobbishness works wonders with these cliches. You get the feeling her character has seen a zillion movies like this, and knows what happens, and surprised even herself when she took the bait.
The question now is: How do we persuade Stiles to find material that suits her prickly, brooding demeanor? Something along the lines of her Ophelia in Michael Almereyda's modern-dress Hamlet from 2000 with Ethan Hawke. I mean, she's already dated the Prince of Denmark, and it goes without saying The Prince & Me is not exactly Shakespeare. When her highly disciplined chemistry student gets tutored in the finer points of the Bard by a Danish playboy, it's both sweet - and even harder to buy than the idea she might abruptly consider abandoning her dreams of working for Doctors Without Borders to become Queen of Denmark.
I'm not making this up.
There's a big dose of post-modern feminism going on here (as with most modern takes on Cinderella): Our heroine no longer asks to be treated as equal to her male suitor. That's already a given. What's interesting about this new wave of movies about princesses-to-be and first daughters is how the female side of the equation wants to keep the glass slipper, go to the ball, and reside in the gilded palace. And provide medical care to the Third World. But the men they stick by are distinctly boorish.
Speaking of chemistry: Stiles and newcomer Luke Mably stare at each other's face when the other isn't aware, they hold hands under the dinner table. It's cute. Just little moments like that, handled without comment, carry us down the film's well-rutted Wisconsin roads a surprisingly long way. Danish Prince Edvard (Mably) is chafing under the expectations of his parents, the King (James Fox) and Queen (Miranda Richardson). Rather than plot a murder or ponder the slings and arrows of fate to a skull, this Prince of Denmark decides to head for college in the Midwest, where, television promises him, the girls go wild.
If you know what I mean.
Initially Paige (Stiles), uber serious about her studies and down to earth, is as turned off by Edvard's Eurotrash smarm and lack of grace as we are. Coolidge, so careful with young actors in underrated '80s gems like Valley Girl and Real Genius, lets some real goofiness get by. Edvard is sheltered, yes - but so sheltered he would walk into a university bar and expect women to get naked because he asks? This is how Edvard and Paige meet, and it's endemic of what's wrong with the fitful Prince & Me: when their relationship evolves, when they seem interested in what they don't know about each other, the charm is infectious. When Coolidge dutifully sticks with a screenplay that replays Roman Holiday for the umpteenth time, the creaking grows so loud it starts to drown out everything.
You can't help wonder: What's the rush? Paige brings Edvard home to her family's dairy farm for Thanksgiving, and Coolidge handles it as it might happen. Her cowpoke brothers don't flinch at his upper-crust accents and hate him immediately. They enter him in their town's annual lawn mower race. Edvard doesn't become the classic American idea of European pretension. The family wonders who else is from Denmark and he offers Hans Christian Andersen and Soren Kierkegaard to blank stares - then suggests, "Um, ah, Lars Ulrich of Metallica"? And bingo.
I liked the movie at these moments. Why The Prince & Me feels compelled to condense the rest of their courtship - and I'm talking meeting cute to misunderstanding to break up to hook up to marriage in a few months - is a mystery. The movie comes to a natural ending and then Coolidge tacks on one more, and whatever goodwill you stored up evaporates. The end feels desperate and wrong, and the audience I saw it with groaned audibly. Would Paige really throw it all away to be Queen of Denmark? What do her parents think? Where did she get the money for the plane ticket to Europe? Those aren't the kind of questions you ask a movie that's working for you, and when a movie cares enough to establish how smart its heroine is, and then compromises her, you can't find enough going wrong.
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