'Kit': Doll With Moxie Puts a Happy Face on the Depression

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Based not on a show or even a song or a game, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" is based on a doll.

Well, why not? As everyone knows, anything goes. The doll in question is a beloved artifact manufactured and sold by a subsidiary of Mattel, under the rubric "American Girl." The dolls are linked to time and place with a wardrobe of appropriate accessories as a way of teaching girls the history of their own country, primary school evidently having failed at this task utterly. The series has been extremely successful, and this installment is the fourth, though the first to get the big movie treatment with a theatrical release, as opposed to a straight-to-TV destiny. Julia Roberts is the executive producer.

The movie with this unusual pedigree is, alas, not unusual in the slightest. In fact it is so usual it deserves some kind of an award for obviousness as it telegraphs every development, traffics in stereotypes and cliches, and merrily appends 21st-century political correctness onto the 20th century's hardest and grimiest decade. The tweener girls for whom it is aimed deserve better. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

It also re-creates a lost genre. The doll movie? "Baby Doll"? "Valley of the Dolls"? "Guys and Dolls"? "Dolly Parton in Concert?" No: the rooming house movie. You know, like, "Miss Susie Slagle's." You've never heard of "Miss Susie Slagle's"? My point, exactly. That 1946 movie was: med students, boardinghouse, Baltimore, 1910, every guest a zany or a zinger. "Kit Kittredge": travelers, boardinghouse, Cincinnati, 1934, every guest a zany or a zinger including . . . a guy with a monkey!

When it opens, the Kittredges are solidly ensconced in their suburban home, secure and warm and full of love for one another, the comforting dwelling serving as a symbol of the solidity of their upper-middle-class life. Perky Kit (Abigail Breslin) is trying to "break into print" on the downtown Cincinnati Register, but blowhard editor Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn) keeps rejecting her cute child's-eye view of the World's Fair. Breslin, so wondrous and singular in "Little Miss Sunshine," now, two years later, seems sleek and well modulated, a trained child actor, not a real, living, hurting thing. She represents, in case you are exceedingly dumb, the American Girl virtues of spunk, spirit, pizzazz, what have you; she's got spirit. She's a durn spitfire. Yet compare her performance with a brilliant one of almost the same role and time -- Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon" -- and you see what a standard little commercial item Breslin's performance is.

The issue of the first part of the film is watching the Depression -- first represented by scrawny hobos slouching along the street -- erode the sanctity of the Kittredges' middle-class security. Dad (Chris O'Donnell, overmatched) loses his car dealership and can't find work; gradually the family makes the decision to take in boarders, to sell eggs, grow veggies, to somehow get through it. Dad, meanwhile, like so many others, hits the road, looking for better times and places. In what seems like 10 minutes -- wait, it is10 minutes! -- Mom (the beautiful English actress Julia Ormond, who looks like she could use Chris O'Donnell for kindling) and the kid are sharing the abode with zanies, wackos, crazies and that guy with a monkey!

For God's sake, ladies and gentlemen, can we not agree on one thing: No more guys with monkeys!

The director, Patricia Rozema, has a rare talent: She gets third-rate performances out of first-rate performers with almost startling efficiency. Besides the generic perkiness of Breslin, such uniquely flavored performers as Glenne Headly, Jane Krakowski, Joan Cusack and Stanley Tucci have key roles. All are bland, some hardly exist at all, and as performance, the whole thing seems a waste.

The one element of which Rozema and the production team can be proud is the film's art production, though there's something quietly appalling about a self-consciously "colorful" Depression (again, check the Depression in "Paper Moon"). You sense the movie crew spending millions in clothes, cars, disguised building fronts and whole blocks of downtown Toronto, shining up old streetcars and so forth and so on to make viewers think they're in the middle of a massive economic dislocation, but the images, so squalor-free, so sparkly with primary color, so damned . . . spunky . . . make it seem more like a new Disney World neighborhood.

Nowhere is this dishonesty by primary color more revolting than in the film's evocation of a hobo jungle. Not a cesspool for despairing, desperate men on the road, hunted by cops and railroad bulls, full of self-loathing and therefore truly dangerous, looking for a Steinbeck to tell their epic story, this place is presented as a cheery collectivist utopia where rosy-faced, squeaky-clean, toothsome bohemians merrily contribute, each according to his talent to each according to his need. It's a leftist cuckoo fantasy straight out of Stalin's Ministry of Culture in the actual year 1934, so obviously false it makes you feel like like you've been kidnapped by a "Kumbaya" chorus.

In any event, the utopian Hooverville is in service to the movie's crackpot central thesis, which is the fabulosity of the hobos (a.k.a., in our time, the homeless) as opposed to the petty, mean-spirited greed of those who try to cling to the middle class. This leads to a feeble, creaky plot in which the rooming house's two pet, noble hobos are accused of burglary so that it falls to Kit, girl reporter, and her fellow members in the Treehouse Club to prove their innocence. Anybody who can't see where it's going should turn in his family's moviegoing permit to the Ministry of Culture and face immediate exile to the wastes beyond Lake Baikal. Your father Koba the Bear demands it of you!

Anyhow, the movie itself is just like a doll. Bright and colorful, it just lies there wrapped in plastic waxy skin, eyes dead buttons staring into nothing.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (96 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company