Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 3, 2003
What a Girl Wants\r\nStarring Amanda Bynes and Colin Firth. Directed by Dennie Gordon. Written by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler, based on William Douglas Home’s screenplay. Rated PG.
Bynes of the Times

What a Girl Wants\r\nis a nice coming-out party,\r\nbut its star deserves better.


Amanda Bynes has big, saucer-shaped eyes, a naturally vivacious personality, and considerable gifts for physical comedy and vocal impersonations. For the past several years, she has shone on cable tv shows and in a supporting role in last year’s Big Fat Liar. It doesn’t seem premature at all that she has now earned her first lead role in What a Girl Wants, a movie that allows her quite a few opportunities to flash the qualities that have made her a star.

Bynes plays Daphne Reynolds, a salt-of-the-earth New Yorker who grows up listening to her mom (Kelly Preston) tell the story of falling in love with the handsome English Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth) while backpacking through the North African desert. When his uptight family rejected her, she returned to America and had Daphne without telling him about his child. Wanting to know her father after all this time, Daphne packs up after she turns 17 and heads to London on her own. Her father takes her in after getting over his initial surprise. However, Daphne’s tendency to get into bad public situations endangers his burgeoning political career.

The credits claim that this movie is based on The Reluctant Debutante (a pleasant 1958 comedy starring Rex Harrison and the incredibly cool, tragically short-lived Kay Kendall), but the resemblances are hard to come by. The film would have been better off concentrating on the father and daughter getting to know each other. Instead it tries to do too much. There are subplots about Lord Henry’s political career (naïve), his relationship with his snobbish fiancée and her spoiled daughter (overdrawn), and Daphne’s romance with a sensitive musician (limp). Though director Dennie Gordon fights to maintain the energy level, the movie loses too much steam as it winds to its conclusion.

Still, that can’t kill off the good will generated by Bynes and Colin Firth. The essentially glum English actor continually finds his way into comedies that mine his glumness for humor. Previous films have made him a straitlaced foil for looser actors such as Hugh Grant (Bridget Jones’s Diary) and Rupert Everett (The Importance of Being Earnest), which he does pretty well. He’s given more to do here, and he responds, flashing anger and betrayal at the people who kept his daughter’s existence from him, and suggesting a hip guy underneath the lordly exterior. Many actors faced with the challenge of playing second fiddle to a 17-year-old would have phoned it in; Firth gives a performance that’s as real as the script allows him to be.

Bynes gets plenty to do as well, including a funny dance number at the beginning and several pratfalls, which she takes skillfully. Sadly, she’s not as good with the big heartfelt speeches that the movie gives her. The speeches themselves aren’t so much of a problem, but they indicate that the film isn’t satisfied with the genuine cuteness of its star and wants to make her into the kind of actress that she isn’t at this point in her career. What a Girl Wants is supposedly about being true to yourself. It should have taken its own advice when it came to its leading lady.

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