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A Cinderella Story

(2004) * 1/2 Pg
98 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Mark Rosman. Cast: Hilary Duff, Chad Michael Murray, Brenda Song, Brad Bufanda, Jennifer Coolidge.

To director Mark Rosman's credit, his surprisingly competent helming of A Cinderella Story makes this umpteenth insidious wish-fulfillment chiclet-flicklet fantasy go down with a shovelful of sugar. I hardly expected to dish out even a backhanded compliment to this rote exercise in teenage self-pity met with a hunky reward and a ride into the sunset, but Rosman even manages to step up Hilary Duff's game from awful to passable, which—given the evidence of The Lizzie McGuire Movie and Cheaper By the Dozen—qualifies as some kind of movie miracle.

Don't mistake any of this for a recommendation for this fable of swallowing fears and locating identity largely in a soul-mate mirror. A Cinderella Story refuses ever to introduce any overtly magical elements (Regina King's "fairy godmother" is no more than a brassy broad, for example) but relies heavily on unrealistic movie conventions all the same. Most of these postmodern fairy tales live to tweak the source stories; A Cinderella Story exists only to sing the same old song with a few new lyrics (the glass slipper's now a cell phone...snap!).

Sixteen-year-old Duff plays North Valley High senior Sam Montgomery. Her father and muse died years before, leaving her in the carelessness of a Wicked Stepmother named Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge, pumping out her thickest crude-oil shtick). Natch, Sam's also got two Ugly Stepsisters (Madeline Zima and Andrea Avery) to be screenwriter Leigh Dunlop's punching bags. The terrible trio effectively enslaves Sam at the diner once operated by her father, but despite horrible obstacles, you can lay dollars to donuts that Sam will make it to the Homecoming Dance and win over Prince Charming.

This time, the prince is football hero Austin Ames, played by teen heartthrob Chad Michael Murray. Austin hopes, as does Sam, to matriculate at Princeton where, as Sam's father once told her, "the princes go." Despite suffering a gridiron-obsessed pop, he, too, is a sensitive soul just waiting for a chance to become his best self: a writer. What this romantic softie has to write about is anyone's guess, but he may have a future with Hallmark. Meanwhile, he warms up by exchanging secret admirer text messages with Sam while going through the motions with his "in" crowd and his Fighting Frogs football peers.

The movie's only real comic relief comes from the freshly scrubbed sit-comedy stylings of Dan Byrd as Sam's geeky best friend Carter. He, too, has yet to settle into his fully realized self, so he spends the picture wriggling in and out of silly fashions and costumes (at the costume-themed dance, he sexually liberates himself in Zorro garb). King is the tart queen of the diner staff, alongside Paul Rodriguez's short-order cook; united in their hatred of Fiona, the staff seem otherwise strifeless, focusing their energy and empathy on the poor little (rich) girl who unaccountably takes years to stand up to her horrid family.

Football, a diner with roller-skating waitresses, and the car wash run by the Ames men prove the '50s to be the stepping stone from the ancient fantasy yarn to the All-American teen fantasy of today. The blandly reiterated message of Sam's dead father ("Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game") may be harmless, but see if you're not unsettled by the blank-slate ebullience of the ethnic help who are the wind beneath Sam's pretty, white wings. Don't these people have children of their own, and wouldn't their stories be more interesting?

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