A Cinderella Story

Pity Hilary Duff, less pretty and talented than Lindsay Lohan, and also less able to choose good movies to make. (Well, pity Amanda Bynes even more, as she seems to have disappeared altogether, but never mind.) In the race to become the most successful not-quite-legal teen-queen movie star, Lohan has won and Duff has landed under Mandy Moore and on top of the Olsen twins, crushing poor Mary-Kate. (That there should even be this many names to consider, while Hollywood has no work for Helen Mirren or Maggie Smith, is a sad thing to contemplate.)

Anyway, Duff’s new film “A Cinderella Story” is a frustrating and convoluted modern fairy tale in which characters behave irrationally and without motivation. The movie knows it wants certain things to happen, but it has no idea how to construct a story that will lead to those events naturally. Instead, things just HAPPEN, without regard for whether those characters would actually do that, or whether real people would actually say that, or whatever. The film exists in its own little fantasy world where cause and effect have no place, and where you can talk to a woman face-to-face for an entire evening, but if a 2″x5″ part of her face is covered with a mask, you won’t recognize her when you talk to her again the next day.

Duff plays Sam, a high school senior stuck with her vain stepmother Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge) and dumb stepsisters in a posh California suburb. Fiona makes Sam work at the family’s diner, which is the cause of Sam’s unpopularity at school. (Evidently this school is SO rich that NONE of the students have menial after-school jobs. In real life, I think being a roller-skating waitress at a diner would actually be one of the cooler occupations a high school kid could have.)

Sam’s been carrying on a relationship via e-mail, text message and Internet chat, “You’ve Got Mail”-style, with a boy called Nomad. He is sensitive — he wants to be a writer! He quotes poetry! — but he is also, unbeknownst to Sam but beknownst to us, captain of the football team Austin Ames (Chad Michael Murray). He’s one of those brooding, soulful hunks you see in teen movies, with two devoted male followers who love him as much as all the girls do.

They arrange to finally meet at the homecoming dance (held mid-week, inexplicably), and Sam is shocked to discover she’s in love with the unattainable Austin, and Austin is shocked to discover … nothing, because Sam won’t take off her mask and won’t tell him her real name. She’s afraid once he finds out she’s Diner Girl, he won’t like her anymore. The dance ends, Sam rushes out, and Austin begins a search for his Cinderella.

This is a movie where the plot complications exist only because the main characters are retards. Austin must be borderline amnesiac to not recognize Sam any of the several times he sees her after the dance — especially since he’s in a frame of mind where he’s searching the face of every girl he encounters to see if it’s her — and Sam’s wishy-washiness over telling him the truth gets old oh-so-fast.

Directed by Mark Rosman and written by Leigh Dunlap, neither of whom has any credits I recognize, the film is airy and blithely romantic at first, but very quickly descends into unintentional absurdity and stays there. A subplot in which Fiona sabotages Sam’s college plans makes no sense — if she hates the girl, why does she want her sticking around? — but that’s typical of the half-baked nonsense that comprises the film as a whole. It’s pre-fab “fun” at its most mirthless.

D+ (1 hr., 37 min.; PG, mild idiocy.)