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Published: Friday, 7/16/2004

Movie review: A Cinderella Story *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Haven't we been here before? I know I have. A Cinderella Story stars Hilary Duff of The Lizzie McGuire Movie as the most beautiful set-upon social outcast in her high school. She works up the courage to defy the mean girls (who always strut in threes, shoulder to shoulder); she gets what a girl wants; she wins over her Prince Charming; she lands a huge bankroll and four years at an Ivy League college. Business as usual for the upwardly mobile tween queen of today.

In between running circles around her shallow stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge) and evil stepsisters, and learning how to deal with the death of her father (killed by an earthquake, doncha know), Hilary works at her dead dad's diner and scribbles in her princess diary and learns the meaning of friendship - and oh, the heck with it all.

Yes, killed by an earthquake.

I'm starting to feel like a sportswriter here. The lineup changes, but the rules, the uniforms, and the playing field never do, and there are only so many outcomes you can expect. Still, my guess is Hilary Duff, if you are older than 40 or younger than 4, is merely a flash of stylish bangs and white teeth among a current surplus of young female movie stars with stylish bangs and white teeth. And you don't know your Lindsays from your Britneys, your Ashlees from your Ashleys, or your Mary-Kates from your Amandas.

Help is here. For those keeping score at home, but with more important things to do, like ironing and breathing, sorting through the harem of HYAVLS (Hot Young Actresses with Very Little to Say) is daunting. Yet a quick run-through of the current roster will place A Cinderella Story in much-needed context. At this point in the review, if you require visual aids I urge you to run out and locate a copy of Us Weekly and follow along at home; on the other hand, being that A Cinderella Story offers not a shred of an original thought nor a single variation on an often-repeated movie formula, those simply familiar with Cinderella will do fine without any periodicals.

Hilary Duff, 16, plays neurotic, smart, tentative, wholesome Sam Montogomery, a Cinderella in the San Fernando Valley. Not to be confused with neurotic, smart, tentative, wholesome Lizzie McGuire, her character from the Disney Channel show and movie of the same name. And also not to be confused with Haylie Duff, the sister of Hilary Duff who looks like Hilary, only brunette. Haylie is not to be confused, of course, with Hayley Mills, the original tween queen, who starred in the original Parent Trap in 1961. The Parent Trap was much-later remade with a young Lindsay Lohan, the hottest of the tween queens. Lohan, the star of Mean Girls, is fiesty, freckled, funny; she has dignity. She sings and dances with credibility; Hilary does, too. But Lohan is the Rolling Stones to Duff's Beatles, pure pop with more than trace of naughtiness.

Anyway.

Duff specializes in good kids with no discernible or remarkable qualities aside from being pleasant and ordinary. This dovetails nicely with Sam's Prince Charming, high school football star Austin Ames (Chad Michael Murray) who likewise only wants to do good but is stymied by parents and friends. (Their spiritual kin are the bushy-tailed young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.) A Cinderella Story is maybe the only teen piffle where you'll ever hear children told by their legal guardians not to follow their dreams: Sam is told not to go to school, Austin is told to stay in Los Angeles and inherit his dad's car dealership. They

bond through a creepy anonymous text-messaging relationship even more ludicrous than the romantic mystery between Lois Lane and Clark Kent, only without the charming goofiness.

At the ball - that is, the high school Halloween Ball (as sanded-down as Mean Girls' Halloween party was sharp-edged) - Sam and Austin meet and realize they are perfect for each other. And they are. They're both morons. Being that she's ashamed of her job at the diner, she doesn't tell him that she's his anonymous admirer. And remarkably, because she's wearing a vintage wedding gown and a tiny mask, he can not figure who his mystery girl could be. Much the way Lois Lane was fooled by Clark Kent's horned-rim glasses.

But I sympathize.

How to tell Hilary Duff from Britney Spears? This one is tough: Both are blond, have vaguely the same bone structure. But Hilary is slightly less toned, and always holding her shoulders up around her ears and her hands self-consciously buried in the cuffs of her sleeves. Oddly though, while appearing far more wholesome than Spears in reality, Duff appears to be 28 years old and far more worldly. She cries the best of the new tween queens, too: Her eyes go ruddy and her face washes of color with uncanny believability.

Hilary isn't funny. That would the talent of Amanda Bynes, star of What a Girl Wants and Nickelodeon. They both have straight hair though, and chubby cheeks, so look closely. The Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, are the ones with the raccoon eyes; they're easy to identify because they always arrive in pairs. Ashlee Simpson, younger sister of Jessica, hasn't been in a movie, yet, but once she is, telling her from Mandy Moore, also a brunette, will be a chore. Quick rule of thumb: Moore is the tween queen most likely to be around in a decade; she's a fine actress.

Anyway.

As for the rest of the Cinderella accoutrements in A Cinderella Story: the misplaced slipper is now a misplaced cell phone; her midnight curfew is when her shift at the diner starts; and her wicked stepmother, the Botox-obsessed Fiona, doubles as her employer. It takes a special movie to waste the scene-stealing, scrunchy-faced bawdiness of Jennifer Coolidge (best known as Stifler's mom in the American Pie movies). Yet director Mark Rosman (a vet of Duff's TV show) pushes his relentlessly bland hand and uses her as a sight gag, reducing a promising caricature of an inch-thick money grubber to a slapstick buffoon. And if everything else feels played out and overly familiar too, that's because A Cinderella Story is merely going back to the source of the zillion teen princess movies released in the last 18 months.

What took them so long?

The irony is, as we've progressed from The Princess Diaries to A Cinderella Story, the magic steadily fell away - to the point where Hilary's Cinderella isn't even particularly abused. She has a convertible, straight-As, a cool room in the attic; she gets everything she wants, just not all at once. There's a cynicism so ingrained by now it's barely noticed anymore. Moments before he's snuffed out by an earthquake, Sam asks her father:

"Do fairy tales come true?"

"No," he answers.

"But dreams do."

Gee, dad, thanks. I think.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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