If Walt Disney had been able to use technology to clone a generic teenage star in some secret laboratory, the result might well have been something like Hilary Duff, a prefab pop singer who looks just like all the other blonde pop stars, yet somehow doesn't manage to generate any kind of sexy vibe despite being reasonably pretty (unlike with Britney and the Olsens, few are obsessing about the date Duff turns 18). Duff isn't a bad actress, yet her career is so micro-managed and depends so much upon image over substance that it's impossible to tell what she's truly capable of.
And she keeps playing ugly-duckling roles, which is an insult to her audience. Mandy Moore had it right when she made her big-screen debut as the bitchy blonde villainess in The Princess Diaries; only later, having dyed her hair dark brown and donned sickly makeup, did she try a more modest role in A Walk to Remember. Duff could probably be prom queen at most any high school in the country, yet when we see her as Lizzie McGuire and this new Cinderella, we're expected to believe that guys ignore her and girls ridicule her. Hilary could do worse than emulate the career of older sister Haylie, who isn't as famous but excelled as the smarmy would-be class president in Napoleon Dynamite.
It's not like there's much point in synopsizing the plot of A Cinderella Story, but it's always possible that some readers don't remember whether Cinderella was the fairy tale about the apple or the one about the glass slipper, or maybe the long hair. It's the slipper, but since kids today can't relate to archaic footwear, it's replaced herein by a lost cell phone. Our Cinderella Hilary (named Samantha Montgomery, possibly as a Bewitched reference) meets her Prince Charming, football star Austin Ames (Chad Michael Murray), in an online chat room. Only she doesn't know that he's a football star, because despite their near-endless instant-messaging sessions ("We've been at this for five hours!"), they've never e-mailed photos of each other or used real names.
Samantha lives with two stupid stepsisters and a plastic-surgery nightmare of a stepmom (Jennifer Coolidge, funnier when she was Stifler's mom). Her father died during the Northridge earthquake, when he was dumb enough to say, "I'll be right back!" after hearing a strange noise. Evil stepmother Fiona loves pink, which is movie shorthand for tacky, and she also has a weird thing about fish, so when she takes over the family diner, it starts serving things like salmon waffles and sushi-filled doughnuts (sadly, that's as close to funny as the movie gets).
Samantha has a platonic best buddy named Carter (Dan Byrd), who, in any other movie, might end up being the perfect guy she falls for, but this is Cinderella, after all, and turning down Prince Charming in favor of a real, attainable friend would defeat the purpose. As for the fairy godmother, there's nothing fairy-like about her (casting a gay male would have been funny, but again, too subversive). She's Rhonda (Regina King), a take-no-nonsense black woman who works at Fiona's diner purely so she can keep an eye out for Samantha, who's forced to toil day and night at the diner and at home. She's got a really nice house for someone who's worked under a stingy boss at a diner for the past eight years, but this is a fairy tale, after all. Paul Rodriguez plays a cook at the diner, but he doesn't do or say anything amusing -- he might as well be an extra.
The ball at which Samantha finally meets her anonymous prince is now a Halloween dance. He's revealed at last as the jock she used to dislike in real life, and she . . . well, she's in "disguise," wearing a tiny mask that covers about as much of her face as Clark Kent's glasses do. Will she have the courage to tell him that she's really the world's most glamorous diner waitress? And if she does, how can the movie possibly fill the rest of its running time?
You don't wanna know. Symptomatic of the film's contrived nature is one truly painful slapstick bit in which the stepsisters chase each other through a car wash, despite the fact that they could very easily run somewhere else and escape danger more effectively.
Readers may ask themselves, "Like, ohmygod, what do these critics expect, Gone With the Wind? Peep this: It's just a fun movie, yo!" (Did we mention that hearing suburban teens mouth lame hipspeak is apparently hilarious to the filmmakers?) Fair enough -- A Cinderella Story is obviously not trying to be great art, but is it too much to expect it to try to reach the, uh, heights of Agent Cody Banks or The Lizzie McGuire Movie? If you let them, studio executives will take endless advantage of the fact that many kids have no discernment whatsoever, as will Hilary's producer-mother. Don't encourage that.