If "What a Girl Wants" wasn't already from the minds that brought us "Joe Dirt" and "Message in a Bottle," it might have been necessary to describe the movie's tone as "Joe Dirt" meets "Message in a Bottle."
Were it not for young star Amanda Bynes' energetic good nature in the face of drab dialogue and wooden stereotypes, "What a Girl Wants" might have been a career-ending movie violation rather than just an embarrassing fender-bender.
Essentially a misguided retread of the 1958 Rex Harrison/Sandra Dee vehicle "The Reluctant Debutante," "What a Girl Wants" follows teenager Daphne Reynolds (Bynes) to England in search of her father, Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth).
In the 1980s, after a whirlwind romance with Daphne's bohemian mother Libby (Kelly Preston), Henry suddenly inherited the family fortune, along with obligations to uphold its reputation and traditions. Under pressure from Henry's advisor (Jonathan Pryce), a pregnant Libby ran back to America, never telling Henry of their daughter. Seventeen years later, Daphne changes all that, swooping in on Henry unannounced, right before his election to Parliament and his marriage to snooty social climber Glynnis Payne (Anna Chancellor).
What a girl wants, according to screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler, is a father. What a girl needs, however, are better filmmakers.
Director Dennie Gordon ("Joe Dirt") has mistaken England for the moon, and the English for robotic, idiot aliens. "The Reluctant Debutante" was an example of Hollywood's "polite" comedies of manners. "What a Girl Wants," however, can best be described as impolite attempt at comedy that should be filed next to Cuba Gooding Jr.'s gay-themed "Boat Trip" in a video-store section called "Dusty Cultural Stereotypes." When Daphne hugs her grandmother (Eileen Atkins), she bristles: "I am British. We only show affection to dogs and horses."
Firth, fresh off "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "The Importance of Being Earnest," joins Pryce as top English talent wasted for no good reason. That's not to say he isn't willing to throw himself into a role. It might take him years, however, to live down a scene in which he pours himself into leather pants, plays air guitar and yowls Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo" in front of a mirror. Tom Cruise in "Risky Business" he is not.
Yet, newcomer Bynes makes Daphne her own, bringing charm and a kinetic crackle to a movie that needs it badly. Former Tim Burton producer Denise Di Novi ("Message in a Bottle," "Ed Wood") continues a run of launching promising actresses in vapid movies (such as Mandy Moore in "A Walk to Remember").
A peasant amid "good breeding," Bynes is the wild-card American forced into stupid set pieces (example: a goofy, ice-down-the-back wedding dance set to "Shout!"), or situations geared to make her look like a forward-thinking Pollyanna sent to liven up the corpse-like British.
It's all transparent, absurd posturing that makes everyone look culturally ignorant, if not a bit daft. In the end, it's difficult to gauge who looks more ridiculous - the wild, howling Americans or the humorless, pitiable British. If "What a Girl Wants" were read as pure history, one might surmise that Americans were simply rude houseguests the British kicked out 200-plus years ago.
1 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"What a Girl Wants"
Directed by Dennie Gordon; screenplay by Jenny Bicks, Elizabeth Chandler; photographed by Andrew Dunn; edited by Charles McClelland; production design by Michael Carlin; produced by Denise Di Novi, Bill Gerber, Hunt Lowry. A Warner Bros. release; opens Friday, April 4. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG (mild language).
Daphne Reynolds - Amanda Bynes
Henry Dashwood - Colin Firth
Libby Reynolds - Kelly Preston
Jocelyn Dashwood - Eileen Atkins
Glynnis Payne - Anna Chancellor Alistair Payne - Jonathan Pryce
Robert K. Elder is a Tribune staff writer.