What a Girl Wants is officially a remake of the 1958 Sandra Dee film The Reluctant Debutante, but in the hands of screenwriters Elizabeth Chandler (A Little Princess) and Jenny Bicks it’s become a virtual reimagining of Disney’s The Princess Diaries.
Once again the young daughter of a working-class American mother and an aristocratic European father who are now divorced is raised in America by her single mother before eventually being introduced to her father’s elite world. Once again the heroine must overcome her American propensity for exuberance and pratfalls and learn dignity and poise.
Despite these similarities, What a Girl Wants differs from The Princess Diaries in three important respects, all of which are, as far as they go, good ideas.
First, instead of being a Pygmalion makeover fantasy, What a Girl Wants stresses the importance of being yourself. Of course, not giving the heroine a makeover is hardly a big deal if she starts off looking and dressing like Amanda Bynes (Big Fat Liar).
Second, where Diaries killed the father off without ever letting the daughter meet him, What a Girl Wants focuses on gratifying the heroine’s yearning for a relationship with her absent father — a relationship that is the film’s touching answer to the implied question in its title.
Third, Diaries tried to whitewash the parents’ divorce and the father’s abandonment of his daughter by offering a bogus explanation for why it was all really for the best. What a Girl Wants has a better idea: Aristocratic Henry (Colin Firth) and bohemian Libby (Kelly Preston) were driven apart by a scheming political climber named Alastair Payne (Jonathan Pryce), who convinced Libby that Henry wanted her to leave and sent her packing back to America before Henry found out she was pregnant. (A flashback explains that the couple met in Morocco and were married in a Bedouin ceremony, but separated before having a proper church wedding. The validity of their Bedouin marriage is questioned but not denied, which is meant to allow their daughter to be legitimate without entailing the messiness of divorce.)
Now, seventeen years later, Henry is poised to be elected to the House of Commons, having giving up his hereditary seat in the Lords, and is also engaged to be married to Alastair Payne’s daughter Glynnis (Anna Chancellor), who has a daughter by a previous marriage, Clarissa (Christina Cole). Evidently, Payne’s political ambitions operate on a long timetable.
That’s when sixteen-year-old Daphne (Bynes) shows up at Henry’s London manor-home estate with a birth certificate and a 17-year-old photo of her parents, looking to get to know the man who fathered her. Needless to say, Henry’s ambitious future relations are not amused.
All of this looks good on paper, but there are some problems in the execution. Take the theme of being yourself. What a Girl Wants allows Daphne to enjoy the fabulous gowns and glamor and palatial surroundings that come with her visit to her father, and there’s no suggestion that she needs these things, which is a good thing. Yet whenever she makes an effort not to offend against the genteel expectations of upper-class British society, the movie seems uncomfortable with this, as if this amounts to trying to be something she’s not.
In fact, the movie seems to view casual dress and behavior as a mark of authenticity and integrity, while breeding and politesse are viewed as suspect if not outright hypocritical. This attitude is explicitly professed by Daphne’s guitar-strumming British beau Ian (Oliver James), whose privileged grandparents used to get him into all the "right" schools and clubs "until one day I realized the hypocrisy of it all." Ian gently rebukes Daphne: "Why try to blend in when you were born to stand out?" Why aspire to dignity and poise when exuberance and pratfalls come so naturally?
The last straw, for Ian, is when Daphne chooses to accompany her father to what the production notes call a "stuffy British event" — at which no less than Queen Elizabeth herself will be in attendance — when she could be going to one of Ian’s gigs instead. "Just call me when Daphne reinhabits your body," he snaps petulantly, and it took me a beat to process that the movie actually thinks that he, not Daphne, is in the right. (Bizarrely, unless I missed something, the "stuffy event" and the gig apparently turn out to be one and the same function. Right, like Ian’s the guy you want providing entertainment when you’re hosting the Queen.)
The movie’s other big problem is the way Daphne and Henry’s father-daughter relationship plays out. More specifically, the problem is Henry himself. In a word, he’s a sap. Not only is he diffident, passive, and clueless, he remains so throughout the film.
In fact, that flashback to Morocco seventeen years earlier, when Henry leaped forward to catch a woman he saw sliding down a steep grade and wound up marrying her, is the last time we see Henry acting decisively and purposively until the film’s climax, when he socks Alistair after finding out that the old man knew about Henry’s daughter but never told him. So in the very end he finally does right by his daughter and first love. It’s too little too late to make him an interesting or sympathetic character, or to make his onscreen relationship with Daphne in any way satisfying.
There’s nothing wrong with a character like Henry having a weak start. He’s in the middle of a bid for Parliament, he’s engaged to be married, he’s been under Alistair’s influence for the better part of two decades, and now all of a sudden he finds out he has a teenaged daughter. Not ideal circumstances to see a person at his best.
But after a weak start a character like this is meant to improve, to redeem himself. Henry never does. He’s easily manipulated by the scheming trio into which he plans to marry, is blind to their fairy-tale stepfamily malevolence toward his daughter, and consistently fails to look out for her. He does unexpectedly peel out of another "stuffy British event" on a motorcycle to hang out and go shopping with his daughter, after which he nostalgically pulls his old leather pants out of storage and plays air guitar in front of a mirror. But not even casual clothes and behavior can save this character.
The absence of a satisfying father-daughter relationship means that the movie must fall back on Bynes’s charm and comic talents for its appeal. Fortunately, Bynes delivers. She’s funny and genuine, and almost singlehandedly she makes the film watchable. Eileen Atkins helps as Henry’s mother, the sort of endearingly dotty old dowager whose eccentricity allows her to be all right even though she’s upper class.
Girls in the target ten-to-fifteen age range will doubtless enjoy What a Girl Wants just as they did The Princess Diaries two years ago, when they were eight to thirteen. What I wrote in my review of that film applies equally well to this one: "Those in the market for what it has to offer will find it pleasantly agreeable, and those who aren’t won’t be in the theater in the first place."
Postscript: Another weird similarity between The Princess Diaries and What a Girl Wants: In Diaries, there was a somewhat muddled account about how the heroine’s uncle, a royal heir, had to renounce the throne in order to "join the Church." What a Girl Wants seems similarly confused about the details of the heroine’s father renouncing his hereditary seat in the Lords to stand for the Commons: Alistair predicts the outcome of the election by suggesting that Henry will be "the next Prime Minister," though Henry can hardly be the leader of a major party at this point in his political career. Not, of course, that such fine points are likely to be an issue for the target audience of either film.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.