Stories can last forever if they achieve structural, emotional and moral perfection and therefore can survive any telling of them. Such is true of "A Christmas Carol" or "Sleeping Beauty" or "Snow White."
I thought it was true, also, of "Cinderella," until "A Cinderella Story" proved me wrong. You can say of this movie, truly, that they took the most famous tale in the world and broke it.
The idea isn't without merit. The classic Charles Perrault story, which probably dates from China, has been moved from 17th-century Mitteleuropa to the San Fernando Valley. Hmm, I hadn't noticed it, but possibly there's a shortage of movies set in the San Fernando Valley.
Generally, the production suffers from -- in addition to bad performances, witlessness, general ugliness of execution and an energy level comparable to that of lima beans sprouting -- a particularly annoying lack of cleverness. You really want to see the filmmakers live up to their obligation to find smart modern correlations to the classic devices of the story, and they run out of cleverness long before they run out of movie.
What's the money moment in the story, sure to goose a tear of joy out of even the most jaded old duffer? Why, everybody knows, it's that moment where Ella's foot slides into the glass slipper and in that single second we know that moral order has been restored to the universe, virtue has been rewarded, love has been vouchsafed and Cinder's ever-afters are going to be happy, happy, happy real soon.
This, of course, is the moment the filmmakers chose to excise.
Cinderella is played by child star-turned-pop singer Hilary Duff, who isn't the problem. The movie is the problem. Duff is the solution, but the movie never got that. As screenwriter Leigh Dunlap has worked it out -- this is so lame -- the sense of the privileges of royalty is expressed in SoCal terms by either high school social rank or suburban small business proprietorship. Duff's Sam is exiled to the far nether regions of the nothing-class by virtue of being compelled to work in her wicked stepmother's diner, and is constantly humiliated by her classmates as a diner girl. "Diner Girl," they chant, as if anyone in an American high school has ever been called a "Diner Girl." "Loozer," "Nerdette," "Dweeb," "Twerp" and even "Silly Goose," but not "Diner Girl."
But the larger conceit is equally absurd, of course: Duff is adorable in the most American of American ways, and in any high school between Bangor and San Diego, she'd be the cute one whom everyone wanted to be with. She'd be what Lizzie McGuire dreams of being.
The Prince is a lanky star quarterback named Austin (Chad Michael Murray), who secretly pines to attend "Prince"ton (get it?) but whose bossy father has him set up for pigskin stardom at USC, followed by the assumption of his royal responsibilities as king of the car wash he'll inherit. (Kingdom: Car wash! Lord, how expectations have shrunk.)
The gimmick that Perrault or the Chinese never thought of is e-mail. Both kids yearn for the swanky New Jersey college and have met by handle in the Princeton chat room. Thus, while Austin hangs out with the cool set (whom he secretly despises but lacks the guts to escape -- some prince!) and Diner Girl hangs out with one standard-issue nerd named Carter (Dan Byrd), they've secretly fallen in love via the anonymity of the Net. I suppose the thought was to make it credible that when they are at last revealed to each other, their cyberspace connection will argue for long-term commitment. Or maybe director Mark Rosman just caught up with "You've Got Mail" on HBO 7.
At any rate, crudely manipulating the story -- Fairy Godmother here is the manager of the Diner, a cliche sassy you-go-gal! African American played by irrepressible Regina King -- Rosman (a "Lizzie McGuire" vet) manages to deliver the two to a masked ball, where they meet at a prearranged time and enjoy one enchanted evening. Then she must hasten off, but instead of leaving behind the tiny slipper, she leaves her cell phone.
And I thought: You know, kind of cool if they can bring off some cell-phone version of the foot-in-slipper deal. But no. At this point, the movie largely abandons the Cinderella ur-text and simply becomes a bad teen film about cruel cliques, nasty Heathers and good-hearted but sexually unthreatening nerds.
As I say: Duff is certainly a game trouper, and she and King are the two best things in the film. The wicked stepmother (Jennifer Coolidge) is an ethnic stereotype of the vulgar Lainie Kazan variety and unpleasant; the two stepsisters, played purely for comedy, are uninteresting; and the worst thing of all is Murray's prince. Some day, another fairy tale argued, your prince will come, but this one counters: If it's this guy, you won't even notice.
A Cinderella Story (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild language and innuendo.