“What a Girl Wants” has a man and a woman from two different worlds at odds with each other, even though there is great love between them. Eventually, their differences get the best of them and they split up, at which point we see scenes of them missing each other, set to a trendy pop tune. Then there is an apology and reconciliation in a public setting, and they all live happily ever after.
What separates this film from the romantic comedies that use this plot is that “What a Girl Wants” is not a romantic comedy. The woman is a 17-year-old girl, and the man is her long-lost father.
I mention this not to creep you out — it’s really only the final moments where the similarities between this and the rom-coms become obvious, and I’m sure no subtextual weirdness was intended — but to observe how useful the rom-com template is. Here it is being used in a film about a girl looking for her dad, with no romance to be found. Whoever invented that plot formula, kudos! You should be earning royalties on about half the films Hollywood produces.
Most surprising about “What a Girl Wants” is how much I enjoyed watching it. I’m not a 14-year-old girl, nor am I a fan of movies made for 14-year-old girls, nor am I even a fan of 14-year-old girls themselves — but here’s this film, a pretty breezy excursion into the world of What Girls Want (they want cute boys to like them, and they want Colin Firth to be their dad), and I was charmed by it more than I was annoyed. That’s not high praise, I realize, but please understand that for me to enjoy anything associated with 14-year-old girls — one of my least favorite groups on Earth — means something noteworthy must have occurred.
Amanda Bynes, star of Nickelodeon’s “All That” and “The Amanda Show,” plays Daphne Reynolds, a 17-year-old New Yorker who has spent her entire life wondering about her father. Her free-spirited mother (Kelly Preston) has given her the basic facts: She and Dad were married briefly, but then she took off, before he even knew she was pregnant. The movie is not clear at first on what prompted the separation, nor on why Mom and Dad, despite knowing one another’s whereabouts, have made no attempt in 17 years to clear up whatever misunderstanding there was. At the very least, Mom ought to have told Dad he was a dad, you know?
At any rate, Daphne somehow obtains a passport and a lot of money and flies to London, where Dad — Sir Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth) — has recently given up his seat in the House of Lords to run for public office as a commoner. This is the movie’s way of telling us up front that though he is an upper-class Brit, he’s not a snob. His fiancee (Anna Chancellor) and future stepdaughter (Christina Cole), on the other hand, are exactly the sort of twits we expect our Limeys to be, and it is they who are most in need of Daphne’s lessons on how to loosen up and be more cool, like Americans. (It’s a variation on another theme we see in movies a lot lately, the one where fun-loving black people teach stuffy white people how to relax.)
But anyway. Everyone’s surprised to learn Henry has a daughter, and a little shocked that he’s actually going to let her stay for the summer and treat her like a daughter. This means introducing her into high society, which means she has to embarrass herself at dinners and fall down a lot.
OK, I’m making the movie sound awful. I really did enjoy it, overall, and here’s why: the considerable charm of Colin Firth. The man is such a trouper that even when he’s performing fluff like this, he commits to it completely. There is no hint in his performance that he knows the film is beneath his dignity. I’m sure he does know, of course, but rather than becoming self-conscious about it, or hammy, like many actors would do, he gives as much of a performance as he would in something more legitimate. In so doing, he elevates the material a little, gives it a little spark. Veteran actress Eileen Atkins, as his open-minded mother, does the same thing, and bless her for it.
Amanda Bynes gets bug-eyed and slapsticky too often for my tastes, and I’m glad not to know when “The Amanda Show” is on, thus providing me a handy excuse for not having seen it. But we’ve already established this film wasn’t meant for me anyway. Despite her, there are a number of amusing scenes and situations, and several lines I would call genuinely funny. What’s good about “What a Girl Wants” is that it does everything its target audience wants it to do, but won’t be a chore for their parents to watch, too.
B- (1 hr., 41 min.; )