Reel Opinions

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Material Girls

Every once in a while, an actor or actress comes along who is popular, yet I cannot for the life of me understand why. Preteen idol Hilary Duff is one such actress. She launched to fame at the tender age of 14 with a TV series called Lizzie McGuire. Now, I never watched the show, so for all I know, her work on the series could have been nothing short of brilliant. I have high doubts of that, mind you, but I'm willing to give the girl the benefit of the doubt, because in each and every screen performance she gives, she mystifies and annoys me even more. Here is a girl with the looks of a Barbie doll, along with the personality and screen presence to match, and has not had a single hit film aside from the Cheaper By the Dozen movies (where she mostly stayed in the background in both films) and a movie based on her TV show. Yet, for some reason, the studios keep on casting her, and I keep on wondering what people possibly see in her. I would not wish for anyone's career to peak with Lizzie McGuire, but if her latest film Material Girls is any indication, Hilary Duff will be lucky if she still has a career by the time she graduates from college.

To call Material Girls stupid would be far too generous. Heck, calling it brain dead would be all too kind. The best way I can describe Material Girls is that it is the cinematic equivalent of a drooling lobotomy patient. Here is one of the most lifeless and pathetic excuses for a comedy I have seen in a long time, and no I am not forgetting last year's piece of cinematic pain, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. At least Rob Schneider's movie made me hate it with a passion. This movie is like staring at a brick wall for over an hour and a half, and about as fulfilling as banging your head against one for the same amount of time. The film's ad campaign would like you to believe that it is a parody of wealthy socialites who are famous simply for being famous. I'm all for the Paris Hiltons, Nicole Ritchies, and Olsen Twins of the world getting their cinematic skewering, but this movie is far too dim-witted to attempt even that. Labored and amateurish on just about every level, Material Girls is not so much a movie as it is an insult to the intelligence of Miss Duff's many young fans.

The plot centers around a pair of LA socialite sisters named Tanzie (Hilary Duff) and Ava (real life sister Haylie Duff) Marchetta. They are the heirs to their late father's cosmetics company, as well as the spokesmodels. Mostly, though, they are more famous for their fancy lifestyle and lavish party hopping. Tragedy strikes when a scandal is uncovered, revealing that one of the company's facial care products has severe side effects. The Marchetta sisters are instantly vilified by the press and media, and find their perfect and pampered world falling apart around them. With their company in financial jeopardy and their beloved mansion now a smoldering rubble (after the girls accidentally burn it down), they are forced to move in with their kindly former maid Inez (Maria Conchita Alonso), and find themselves being pressured to turn the company over to their long-time business rival Fabiella (Anjelica Huston, slumming it up in a minor role). Now that they are forced to rely on themselves for the first time, the Marchetta sisters will have to find a way to save their futures when they discover that the entire scandal may be a set up from somewhere inside the company.

When making Material Girls, director Martha Coolidge (The Prince and Me) must have forgotten that just because the main characters have low IQs doesn't mean that the screenplay and everything else has to match their level. Here is a movie so unfocused and below average that I almost find it hard to believe that a major studio backed the project. You can tell that nobody cared about this movie because in a large number of scenes, the dialogue isn't even dubbed to the lips of the actors very well. Characters will be talking, but their mouths will start moving a second or two later. Or someone's mouth will stop moving, but the dialogue continues over. I've seen Japanese monster movies dubbed better than this. Needless to say, it becomes distracting very quickly. Not that there's much up there on the screen to hold our interest, mind you. The insipid plight of Tanzie and Ava is all but impossible to care for because they never seem to have things that bad. As soon as their house burns down, they are welcomed with open arms by a loving and caring friend who supports them whole heartedly. And even though they are encouraged by this friend to get a job and earn their own money, not once do they actually work. There is a job interview scene, but then the movie forgets all about it, and never brings up the fact that they need jobs ever again. The Marchettas never seem to ever be in any real danger, especially since if they are forced to sell the company to their rival, they wind up with $60 million. So, let me get this straight, no matter if they win or lose, they still wind up richer than you or I ever will be for doing nothing at all? And we're supposed to be rallying behind them?

The young heroines seem to change drastically from scene to scene, almost as if the three screenwriters credited kept on trying out different versions of the characters on each page of the script. One minute, they're dim and clueless (they refer to the Spice Girls as "classic rock"), the next they're vain and egotistical, and sometimes they're sympathetic and smart (Hilary Duff's character has college aspirations of pursuing a major in chemistry at a prestigious school, but this plot point is quickly dropped and never quite resolved). The schizophrenic nature of the girls make it hard to exactly pin down just how we are supposed to feel about them. Are we supposed to be laughing at them because they're stupid? Are we supposed to be pulling for them? The movie seems to be just as confused as we are. Perhaps it is for the best, as there is not one single character in this movie worth our interest. Everyone in this movie is either a one-note personality, an offensive stereotype, or a bland pretty boy with no personality whatsoever. These are people who like to sling insults at each other that don't even make any sense. At one point, Ava Marchetta is told off by a guy when he tells her she's (and I quote) "all frosting without the cupcake". I heard the words coming out of the actor's mouth, but my brain could not register what it was supposed to mean, or why Ava was so offended by the remark. Maybe some things in life are better off left misunderstood. Or maybe Material Girls is just an exceedingly stupid movie. Take your pick, there are no wrong answers.

No performance, no matter how layered or researched, could survive a movie like this. And indeed, the below average acting of everyone involved is simply the icing on this cake of pain. (Or perhaps the frosting on this cupcake of pain?) Hilary and Haylie Duff have an obvious easy chemistry together, which should come as no surprise, but neither one are able to create a single memorable scene or moment, whether alone or apart. They seem to be simply trying to earn laughs by staring vacantly at the other actors or the camera. I can't tell if this is intentional or not, but I'm going to let them pass, since their characters are supposed to be idiots to begin with. They don't get to do anything particularly funny, and some scenes even seem to be building to them doing something funny, only to have it cut to the next scene before it happens. Former child actor Lukas Haas (who once starred alongside Harrison Ford in Witness) seems positively lost and bored as a free lawyer trying to help the girls out with their business problems. My guess is he was wondering how he went from co-starring with Harrison Ford to acting alongside the Duff sisters. Anjelica Huston is merely cashing a paycheck in a glorified cameo as the girls' vain business rival. Really, the only performance that seems even the slightest bit genuine comes from Maria Conchita Alonso. She at least is a voice of reason and gets to display some intelligence in a movie filled with very dumb people. However, since the characters and the movie itself decides to ignore her advice, she's simply fighting a losing battle.

To give you a good idea of the audience's reaction to this film, my screening was filled with Hilary Duff's core fan base of young girls and preteens. And throughout most of Material Girls, the audience was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. There was the occasional mild chuckle during some of the film's slapstick gags, but they could barely be heard over the film itself. This movie is a flat out failure almost as soon as the opening credits start up, and we are "treated" to the Duff sisters' rendition of the classic Madonna song that inspired the title of the film. I don't know what this movie was trying to do exactly. Duff's fans were disappointed, it didn't even try to make fun of its own socialite target, and it doesn't hold a single laugh or thought in its empty little head. By the time it was all over, I felt a little bit dumber having just watched it. And believe me, I felt dumb enough buying a ticket to another Hilary Duff movie to start with.

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