Bynes stars as Daphne Reynolds, a fun-loving teenage girl from New York who goes to England to establish a relationship with her long-absent father (Colin Firth), a prominent political figure unaware that after his brief idyll with a free-spirited American woman (Kelly Preston) years ago, “fate gave her the most beautiful gift of all: a beautiful daughter” (fate? how about unprotected sex?). Are we in for a touching, multi-layered story about father-daughter relationships? Or is this is a Cinderella, fish-out-of-water, wild gal loosening up the aristocrats, “trying to fit in, born to stand out”, WACKY! romp? If I tell you that this is the second feature of Dennie Gordon, who last directed Joe Dirt (a movie I was embarrassingly fond of, actually), and that it’s named after a Christina Aguilera song, does that give you an idea?
There are a lot of eye-rollingly trite scenes full of contrived sentimentality and the rest of the film is padded with way too many let’s-try-on-outfits scenes and musical montages (including one set to The Clash’s London Calling– punk is dead indeed), but the cast is likable enough to somewhat elevate the by-the-numbers screenplay (an updated version of the 1958 Minelli film “The Reluctant Debutante”). I liked how the movie dares to embrace its own corniness, with lines like “I love you like a million red M&Ms” or “Oh! My evil stepsister!, and while Daphne’s constant pratfalls and social faux pas are not all that funny, Amanda Bynes is at her most adorable when she’s being goofy. I also found her romance with a not-too-threatening bad boy (Oliver James) surprisingly endearing. She’s got much chemistry with James, who’s pretty damn cool as a motorbike-riding Brit musician who can really funk up a stuffy debutante soirée!
“What a Girl Wants” has got the production values of a TV movie, it’s derivative, inconsequential and desperately predictable, but if you’re in the mood for a harmless MTVed fairy tale you’ll have a good time.