U.S. Release Date: July 16, 2004
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Producer: Hunt Lowry, Dylan Sellers, Casey La Scalla
Composer: Christophe Beck
Cast: Hilary Duff, Jennifer Coolidge, Chad Michael Murray
Running Time: 1 hour and 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (for mild language and innuendo)

by Lane Ford

Landing somewhere 'tween cloying and hackneyed, A Cinderella Story plays more like an ode to AOL than a hip update to a fairy tale. Hilary Duff (The Lizzy Maguire Movie) and her posse of improbable stereotypes manage to trivialize teenage struggle for identity to a text-message and true love to an emoticon.

Sam Martin (Duff) is leading a fairy tale life with her father in the San Fernando Valley, playing baseball, helping him manage his diner and dreaming of attending Princeton (because "that's where the princes go"). A series of disasters strike—her father marries anew, dies in the Northridge earthquake and leaves no will. Sam is consigned to the attic by her evil stepmother Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge,) and to a life of slavery, e.g., working at the diner (now owned by the stepmom), being a "dork" at high school, driving a Mustang, owning her own cell phone and PC. Bereft, Sam finds solace in text and instant messaging with a mystery boy throughout the day. All she knows about her cyber-prince is that he attends her high school and also wants to go where the princes do. The mystery boy happens to be the most popular boy in school and captain of the football team, Austin (Chad Michael Murray), who, in spite of his BMOC façade, feels misunderstood.

The wire-crossed lovers decide to rendezvous at the Halloween costume dance and unmask their identities. They meet and fall in love, but Sam does not reveal herself to Austin, fearing rejection for being "Diner Girl." The cell phone strikes midnight, and Sam must scurry back to the diner (we don't know why), dropping her phone in her haste. It's recovered by Austin, but locked—and the requisite "search for Cinderella"" ensues at the high school. Will Sam reveal her identity and risk… something?

Like The Breakfast Club without a brain, or Sixteen Candles without a heart, or Dangerous Minds without courage, this high school dramedy skips along the golden road of "already been there," searching for some vicarious magic and finding none. The stereotypes are so broad—the cheerleader, the football player, the super-dad, the dorky "Cinderella in the rough"—they're meaningless. The themes—the search for identity, true love, fighting for your ambitions—could be evergreen. Treated here with no originality, they're hollow. And the devices used to "update" Cinderella with an "original twist" simply make no practical sense.

The apparent enchantment of Hilary Duff remains mysterious, and the rest of the cast fades into cliché, save two. Jennifer Coolidge (Legally Blonde) claims the only "laughing with" moments of hilarity as a botox-happy Valley-snob. Dan Byrd, in a breakout role as Sam's reliable pal Carter, also lends style and color to his character, in spite of the paint-by-numbers script.

A Cinderella Story leaves one longing for the days when "teen romance"—even if simplistic—still spelled "luv" with four letters and "u" with three.

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