There’s nothing wrong with new retellings of old stories, and as far as Cinderella goes, there have been some pretty imaginative ones. In my books, Ever After hits the high mark with a very strong-willed heroine and a prince who loves her for it, but the 1997 television musical also deserves an honorable mention for its talented and diverse cast. Most recently, Kenneth Branagh charmed with a visually lush adaptation, itself based on the classic Disney animated film. So it’s not too hard to imagine why someone would transfer the fairy tale to modern day San Fernando Valley.
A worthy update takes more than switching names and scenery though, and this movie tries to mask its shortcomings by simply twisting the familiar. The basic Cinderella elements are in place but not in any meaningful form. Sam/Cinderella (Hilary Duff) is an average high school senior who works at her father’s diner, now run by her evil stepmother, Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge). She keeps her sanity by exchanging messages via Samsung flip-phone and AIM, since it is 2004, with “Nomad”/Austin/Prince Charming (Chad Michael Murray), who happens to go to the same school.
The film reaches what are supposed to be its emotional peaks by riding on assumptions from previous interpretations, however. Why, for example, does Sam’s kind father marry such a patently awful woman? Why is Austin so daft that he can’t figure out his dance partner is his classmate? Why does Sam think Austin, the school’s resident stud and star quarterback, would never like her even though they speak often and he’s consistently kind to her? Why does Regina King play an angry black woman whose only purpose is to protect Sam?
These are questions that are never remotely addressed, and the lack of motivation behind any character makes this one of the most lifeless and unimaginative Cinderella retellings I’ve seen. Sam is sweet to be sure and is damn good at baseball, but as far as compelling heroines go, she offers little. Likewise, Duff smiles, shrugs her shoulders, and hopes it’s enough to win the audience; it’s not. Even Sam’s immediate goal – getting into Princeton – is treated as an afterthought. It’s occasionally an urgent plot point, but her desire to fulfill her father’s promise and to get the hell away from her stepmother does not really fuel her character.
The same can be said for Austin, whose dad wants him to forgo the Ivy Leagues in favor of a football scholarship at USC and then a lifetime of managing the family petrol station. That resentment could be leveraged for some compelling insight into both his and Sam’s lives, which are at that blissfully hopeful point where anything seems possible. But he mostly sighs and pines and generally looks dreamy, or like he is dreaming. I can’t imagine myself as a teenage girl and being moved by Austin’s anemic response to everything. Thankfully, you can always count on Coolidge for laughs, even if she walks through her part, in a bubble gum pink, slutty Mrs. Claus get-up. In an oddly prescient moment, she yells in her Donald Trump voice, “Droughts are for poor people….People who use extra water have extra class.” To which I would add, “Don’t watch A Cinderella Story. It’s bad.”
Prod: Clifford Werber, Ilyssa Goodman, Hunt Lowry, Dylan Sellers
Dir: Mark Rosman
Writer: Leigh Dunlop
Cast: Hilary Duff, Chad Michael Murray, Jennifer Coolidge, Regina King, Dan Byrd, Julie Gonzalo, Brad Bufanda, Simon Helberg, J.D. Pardo
Time: 95 min
Country: United States