My Fair Daughter
Over here in the colonies, we like to make fun of all things British –especially in our movies. Never mind that Great Britain is our staunchest ally in Operation Iraqi Freedom. We still enjoy poking fun at English attitudes and customs in films like Shanghai Knights and What a Girl Wants. The latter movie follows the misadventures of an American teenager as she shows her newly-found aristocratic British father a thing or two about having fun and being true to yourself.
Because Amanda Bynes (Big Fat Liar) and Colin Firth (The Importance of Being Earnest) portray the rambunctious daughter and stuffy father so engagingly, this romantic fairy tale charmed me completely. A similar story also worked back in 1958 when it was the basis for a film called The Reluctant Debutante and starred Sandra Dee and Rex Harrison. This time around, Bynes plays the daughter with more physical humor and Firth projects more unconscious sex appeal as the father, but both versions are definitely worth seeing.
Director Dennie Gordon (The Adventures of Joe Dirt) claims Firth was her first and only choice to play Lord Henry Dashwood. "Colin is the master of restraint," she explains. "His integrity and sex appeal bring added depth and texture to his character." I agree. This fine actor speaks volumes merely by the look in his eyes, the slightest change of expression or a simple gesture. Trying to relate to a daughter he never knew he had, especially during the midst of an important election, poses quite a challenge for Lord Dashwood; and Firth makes the man’s frustration and compassion seem very real.
What a Girl Wants also boasts a high-quality supporting cast including Kelly Preston (For Love of the Game) as Bynes’ free-spirited mother and newcomer Oliver James as a young musician who falls for the New York teenager after she arrives in London. Preston, who plays a wedding singer, performs all her own songs with surprising aplomb. It’s her first time singing in a film, and I hope not her last. The James lad is equally impressive. He’s a real find – convincing, easy on the eyes, and an electrifying musical performer. My favorite James number? "Get Up Offa That Thing" which he belts out like a dynamo as part of a rousing attempt by Bynes and James to liven up a staid coming-out party.
Veteran British actress Eileen Atkins (Gosford Park), portraying Dashwood’s mother, steals one poignant scene without even trying. Obviously touched when her American granddaughter tries to hug her, she says, " No hugs, please. We’re British. We save our affection for dogs and horses."
While combining elements of Cinderella and My Fair Lady, What a Girl Wants molds them into an entirely different shape. Yes, our heroine must overcome obstacles placed in her way by a wicked soon-to-be stepmother and stepsister (played with devilish snobbery by Anna Chancellor and Christina Cole) as well as by an evil political manipulator (Jonathan Pryce). And, yes, the fun-loving teen attempts to become a more cultured young lady – even to the point of wearing a replica of Audrey Hepburn’s stunning white ball gown (from My Fair Lady). But in the end, it’s other people who must transform themselves if they want to live happily ever after.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG" for mild language.)