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By Pete Vonder Haar | July 19, 2004

Criticism for movies like “A Cinderella Story” (or New York Minute or whatever) is usually tempered with phrases such as, “consider the target audience” and, “it’s just a kids’ movie.” Ridiculous plots, annoyingly improbable situations, and banal dialogue are overlooked because these films are, in essence, “for the children.” As I see it, these kinds of appellations are used far too frequently. Does this mean we should hold movies aimed at kids to the same standards as adult fare? Of course not, but neither should we ignore a turd of a film simply because it focuses on a younger demographic.

This brings me to “A Cinderella Story,” Hilary Duff’s latest salvo in the ongoing Bull Run between her and fellow Renaissance teenybopper Lindsay Lohan. Lohan scored earlier this year with the financially and critically successful Mean Girls, following up last year’s surprise hit, Freaky Friday.” Does Duff’s latest capitalize on the glimmer of promise shown in The Lizzie McGuire Movie and stand up to the challenge? Sadly for her fans, the answer is a resounding “no.”

The first problem with any retelling of the “Cinderella” story is that we already know how the thing ends. You don’t need a spoiler warning to tell everyone that the girl gets the guy and they all live happily ever after, or at least until Prince Charming decides he doesn’t want to be “tied down” and runs off with Snow White to Reno. At this point, things like freshness of approach and quality of performance become important: does the actress playing Cinderella win the audience over? How evil are the stepmother and stepsisters? Are there any of those frigging mice?

The good news about “A Cinderella Story” is that there are no mice. The rest is, at best, a dull rehash of the old girl-meets-boy chestnut. At worst, it’s an insult even to the intelligence of 12-year olds.

You can probably figure out the plot: Samantha’s (Hilary Duff) dad dies, leaving her with Fiona, the wicked stepmother (a so-so Jennifer Coolidge), and her two repugnant stepsisters. Sam desperately wants to go to Princeton and escape the ignominy of working at her stepmom’s diner. When not subjected to Fiona’s humiliating depredations, she engages in lengthy e-mail/text message conversations with a mystery man who shares her dreams of going to college and becoming a writer. Who could it be? Carter (Dan Byrd), the dorky best friend? The geek with the “Vader was framed” t-shirt? Wait a minute…it couldn’t possibly be Austin Ames (Chad Michael Murray), the captain of the football team/student body president whose father is pressuring him to play football for USC, could it? Is he the one who harbors these pent-up artistic ambitions?

Anyway, the two agree to meet at the Halloween costume ball, where Sam is transformed from attractive teenage girl into more attractive teenage girl through the use of Aqua Net and a push-up bra. Mr. Perfect is quite smitten, yet fails to recognize his masked lady. When she flees the dance to return to work, she leaves her cell phone behind. Will Austin be able to find the phone’s rightful owner and make a love connection?

Please. One could almost overlook the way in which the film posits that Sam has some sort of Clark Kent thing going on where everyone is incapable of recognizing her when she wears a mask the size of a Band-Aid, or that the “mean girls” who persecute Sam really aren’t that mean. You might even be able to forgive the obligatory costume changing montage before the big dance, if not for the message of the film itself.

Think about the outcast kids you knew in high school. There were always those lucky few individuals who, for some reason or another, found themselves verbally or psychologically abused by people from just about every stratum of high school popularity. Maybe they accidentally wet their pants in 8th grade, maybe they were morbidly obese, or maybe they made the mistake of trying to come out of the closet before grad school. The point is, none of these people looked like Hilary Duff. Screenwriters need to quit constantly lying to kids about how they can be or do anything they want as long as they believe in themselves. That may be true for amply endowed blonde high-schoolers like Ms. Duff who – even though they live with their wicked stepmother – still drive a ’66 Mustang and can afford the latest cell phone and an Apple laptop. The rest of you lower middle class schlubs bumming rides from your friend’s older brother, fighting acne, and wearing two-year old shoes can piss right off.

Samantha’s supposed perfect boy doesn’t pay any attention to her either. Not until she shows up at the dance in a low-cut dress, that is. “A Cinderella Story’s” message isn’t so much, “Be yourself and true love will find you,” but rather, “Pretty yourself up and show your tits and guys will find you.” Sage advice? Perhaps, but nothing more revelatory than what you might hear from the balcony of the Cat’s Meow on Bourbon Street.

I realize I’m an old crank who had to write “Who?” in my notes next to Chad Michael Murray’s name even as the girls in the audience punctured my eardrums with their squeals, but you can do better than this, kids. Warner Bros. has launched a massive advertising blitzkrieg to fool you and all your friends into shelling out your parents’ hard-earned money to see “A Cinderella Story” because, hey, Lizzie McGuire is in it. Don’t buy it. Read a book, or get some fresh air, for goodness sake. Sitting around the house all day can’t be good for you.

And would it kill you to get your feet off the coffee table?
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