Knowing full well that the audience for "What a Girl Wants" would consist almost entirely of 'tween girls too young to recognize its artificiality and paint-by-numbers banality, director Dennie Gordon doesn't even bother trying to make the picture palpable to anyone with more discerning tastes.
A lollypops-and-rainbows adventure about a free-spirited New York teenager (the Nickelodeon-launched Amanda Bynes) running away to London to find the blue-blooded daddy she's never known (Colin Firth), it's a movie that virtually ignores its raison d'etre of father-daughter bonding in favor of stock tourist footage (with Bynes hanging off the back of a double-decker bus), music-video shopping montages, rivalries with snooty soon-to-be step-sisters, and flirtations with an unthreateningly cute working-class boy (Oliver James) who plays guitar and rides a motorcycle.
Growing up in a fifth-floor Chinatown walkup with her bohemian wedding-singer single mom (Kelly Preston), Daphne Reynolds (Bynes) has always heard the story of how her parents met as globetrotting college kids and were married by a Bedouin tribal chief before going to England to "get married for real" (the film makes several such offensively ethnocentric gaffes). But when his crusty family sent her packing and lied to the young Lord Henry Dashwood (Firth), saying she had left him, mom went back to the U.S. pregnant and Henry matured into a stiff-upper-lip politician.
When Daphne turns up on the doorstep of his vast London manor with birth certificate in hand, her American exuberance revitalizes Henry's own wild side, much to the consternation of his haughty, politically ambitious fiancée (Anna Chancellor) and her stuck-up daughter (Christina Cole), who see the girl as a rival and a campaign liability.
How she affects him so isn't entirely clear since Henry and Daphne spend barely five minutes together in the first hour of the movie. But even though getting to know her dad was the point of her trip, this doesn't seem to bother the girl, who is giddy and pert from the moment she's invited to stay at the mansion by her grandmother (Eileen Atkins), who has the script's only funny line: "No hugs, dear. I'm British. We only show affection to dogs and horses."
But "What a Girl Wants" has far worse problems than bad dialogue (somebody actually wrote the line "Holy poo on toast!") and "Cinderella"-aped characters ("When I run this house, senile servants will be the first to go," snips Chancellor). While its plot may be a fairly fresh twist on familiar themes, the storytelling is clumsy and contrived.
The second half of the film takes place mostly at endless balls, cotillions and coming-out parties, for which Daphne gets to dress like a princess and at which she always manages to make a scene. Will she choose to curb her spirit and conform to her father's world or will she listen to the cute boy -- whose bubble gum band is inexplicably invited to play all of these high-society events -- when he asks her, "Why fit in when you were born to stand out?"
Apparently her grandmother agrees, which begs the question, Where was she when Daphne's mom was being so roundly rejected 17 years before?
I could beat a drum over dozens of similarly nonsensical, sometimes petty but accumulatively annoying inconsistencies that director Gordon (the woman to blame for the David Spade comedy "Joe Dirt") didn't care enough to correct.
Why would the condescending stepdaughter answer the phone herself in a house full of servants? Why would the band at Daphne's own coming-out party start playing a song for the father-daughter dance when Daphne has gone missing? How could Gordon possibly leave in Firth's line "She has my eyes," when Bynes peepers are big, round, bright and green while his are narrow, overcast and dark brown?
But these things are just symptoms of the fact that Gordon doesn't seem to care about character consistency, smart dialogue, natural narrative flow or anything beyond the most counterfeit kind of charm -- because she expects the same low standards from her target audience.
The fact is, she's probably right. But that's no excuse for not aiming higher. With its similar but far more realistic plot, "What a Girl Wants" could have easily been better than 2001's gratifying, if elementary, "The Princess Diaries." But we'll never know because nobody involved in this movie could be bothered to make the effort.