The early-teen girls who embraced “The Princess Diaries,” “What a Girl Wants” and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie”–which were essentially all variants of the same wish-fulfillment formula, of course–should also take to “Chasing Liberty,” which tweaks the common premise by turning the young heroine who finds her Prince Charming on a European jaunt into a rebellious daughter of the president of the United States. It’s a determinedly innocuous, moderately irritating, totally predictable and largely charmless bit of teen-pandering fluff, handsomely mounted in attractive foreign climes but as wearying to the brain as it’s lovely to the eye, getting duller and more prosaic as it stumbles along under Andy Cadiff’s pedestrian direction. When one of the supporting characters remarks, about two-thirds of the way through, “It was bad, but not as bad as this–this is as bad as it gets,” he’s exaggerating, but not by much.
Pretty but wooden Mandy Moore plays Anna Foster, daughter of bland second-term president James (Mark Harmon, with greying hair combed insistently over his receding line), whose Washington date with a likable schoolmate (Stark Sands) is ruined by her intrusive security detail. Anna asks for the restrictions to be relaxed a mite during a forthcoming trip to Prague for some sort of humanitarian conference, and her dad reluctantly agrees to let her attend a concert accompanied by only her two regular guards, Alan Weiss (Jeremy Piven) and Cynthia Morales (Annabella Sciorra). When he reneges and orders a much larger contingent, she stages a ruse and escapes, abetted by a handsome motorcyclist she bumps into on her dash to freedom. He’s Ben Calder (Matthew Goode), a studly, self-confident British dude a few years older than Anna. He’s also, unbeknownst to her, an undercover secret service agent (no spoiler here, since the script reveals his White House connection almost immediately–a definite miscalculation for a tale that could have taken an adolescent “Charade” approach). Her father decides to take advantage of the situation by allowing Anna a little false freedom with Ben, but a variety of circumstances send the couple on an extended journey to Venice and rural Austria before winding up at a big youth parade in Berlin. Needless to say, Anna and Ben fall for each other along the way, but he’s naturally restrained by his professional responsibilities, while she, in the tried and true fashion of such stories about secrets kept from one another, can’t forgive him for deceiving her–at least temporarily.
The Czech and Italian settings make a considerable impression here–they’re quite lovely, and are captured nicely in Ashley Rowe’s widescreen cinematography. (The Austrian countryside is pleasant but not nearly as luxurious, while the big German crowd scene is a letdown.) But what goes on in front of the colorful locales is far less interesting. Anna’s acts of rebellion prove to be remarkably tame–she drinks a bit too much, skinny dips in the Danube, and even–gasp!–goes bungee-jumping. (The use of stunt doubles in the latter sequence is all too apparent.) The chemistry between Moore, whose Anna often comes across more petulant and willful than ingratiating, and Goode, who’s a tad too old and a bit too stiff to make a perfect partner for her, isn’t very strong, and the constant cutaways to smart-aleck Weiss and standoffish Morales grow tiresome; their badinage has a desperate sitcom feel, and Piven in particular plays it way too broadly. Harmon ambles through his presidential duties without breaking a sweat (here’s a fellow unconcerned with international terrorism–he’s much too busy being Robert Young in the White House), but Caroline Goodall cuts an aristocratic figure as the first lady. Otherwise the only performers of any consequence are Martin Hancock, who’s encouraged to play to the rafters as McGruff, a good-naturedly roguish traveler Anna and Ben meet up with on the way to Venice, and Joseph Long, who lays on accent and ethnic stereotyping very thick as Eugenio, a friendly gondolier. Miriam Margolyes isn’t much more subtle as Eugenio’s accommodating mother. But Sands exhibits an agreeable presence in his thankless role. And on the audio side one has to acknowledge the insertion of a few snippets from Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene” into a soundtrack otherwise filled with faceless background music by Christian Henson and an array of dull pop tunes (one of which, of course, accompanies the obligatory montage of highlights from Anna and Ben’s adventures late in the picture).
Like its predecessors in this genre, “Chasing Liberty” is well appointed, but especially at this stage of the game it seems utterly antiquated: how many times can even a thirteen-year old girl want to see essentially the same story? Warner Brothers will soon find out.