Evolving post-pop-princess Mandy Moore has shown real talent in the three movies she's headlined since becoming an actress. But she has yet to make anything worth watching -- except possibly to those who fall into her own demographic of teenage girls who haven't enough movie-going experience to recognize trite when they see it.
In "Chasing Liberty," she plays Anna Foster, the 18-year-old First Daughter of the United States who is yearning to breathe free of her Secret Service contingent, mainly so boys she likes don't get scared off.
Director Andy Cadiff -- a former TV-sitcom producer, so you know originality isn't his bag -- announces his intention to do nothing creative in the course of the movie by opening with the most inevitable cliché of innocuous teen comedy: the what-to-wear musical montage. Moore, who would be drop-dead gorgeous in a burlap sack, goes through about 20 outfits in preparation for a date with a cute, nervous boy who arrives at the White House in a convertible and passes through the gates before his ID is checked.
Yes, even though the picture's Secret Service agents are supposedly choking Anna's social life (they "ruin" the date when one of the boy's nimrod friends shows up with his hand stuffed into his jacket as if pulling a gun), these crack escorts apparently never heard about what happened to JFK and don't know enough to stop strange cars outside the perimeter of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But let's set aside the picture's wholesale detachment from reality since the plot depends on it. Story proper begins when Anna escapes her minders while accompanying her Presidential dad (Mark Harmon) on a diplomatic trip to Brussels, and goes traipsing around Europe with another yummy fella named Ben (Matthew Goode, a Rupert Everett look-alike with similar wicked charm and charming accent) -- who she doesn't know is also a Secret Service agent.
As the youngest (and apparently the most British) of the President's bodyguards, Ben's assignment is to keep Anna safe while letting her think she's running free. But in the process, he's falling in love with the girl's adorably flirty free spirit. And Anna, seeing as this may be her only opportunity to lose her virginity without burly guys in sunglasses and suits just outside the door, is practically throwing herself at him (skinny dipping in the Danube, anyone?), leaving the poor guy facing a doozy of a duty-vs.-booty dilemma.
Despite both actors radiating a magnetism that makes them eminently watchable, Moore and Goode have negligible romantic chemistry -- a fact that is only amplified by a funny little subplot in which real sparks fly between two of Anna's bamboozled guardians (exquisite Annabella Sciorra and the always-amusing Jeremy Piven) as they butt heads while following her trail to Venice, Austria and Berlin.
As a result, "Chasing Liberty" (the title comes from Anna's Secret Service code name) lacks the spirit needed to overcome its pedestrian direction, its character-building short-hand (Anna must be well-rounded and well-educated because she's versed in opera and can spell "zygote") and its diva-heavy love-song soundtrack, punctuated by the overkill of crashing symbols when Anna and Ben finally kiss.
But back here in the real world, it's hard not to wonder why Ben faces no consequences for eventually putting his feelings ahead of his orders, and even harder not to wonder when Mandy Moore -- whose potential is so palpable it's like a hand grenade with the pin pulled -- will pick a script that challenges her to be more than just a fantasy surrogate Everygirl for her Moon-eyed young fans (who, by the way, have yet to make one of her movies a hit).
A curious side note: Another romantic comedy about an independent, 18-year-old First Daughter falling for an undercover Secret Service agent was once scheduled to open the same day as "Chasing Liberty." But in this Hollywood showdown 20th Century Fox blinked first, so we'll have to go through this all over again later this year when "First Daughter" starring Katie Holmes comes to theaters.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 9th January 2004
Production compaines: Warner Bros. Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
IMDB: 6.1 / 10
Director: Andy Cadiff
Starring: Mandy Moore as Anna Foster, Stark Sands as Grant Hillman, Tony Jayawardena as White House Guard, Jeremy Piven as Alan Weiss, Annabella Sciorra as Cynthia Morales, Terence Maynard as Harper, Mark Harmon as President James Foster, Caroline Goodall as Michelle Foster, Matthew Goode as Ben Calder, Beatrice Rosen as Gabrielle, Miriam Margolyes as Maria
Also starring: Beatrice Rosenblatt
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