- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

“First Daughter” should have contented itself with mastering the charm required of a modest but agreeable romantic comedy. Instead, an outbreak of agenda shuffling, inflating and fumbling results in something closer to sweet-natured klutziness and self-defeating solicitude. Nevertheless, there are aspects to this maladroit trifle that are commendable and endearing in a malice-infested political season.

Ostensibly, “First Daughter” concerns itself with the first college semester of a coed with unique social baggage. Katie Holmes is Samantha Mackenzie, the only child of an incumbent president of the United States, Tom Mackenzie (Michael Keaton), and his spouse Melanie (Margaret Colin). Samantha is envisioned departing for the apocryphal Redmond University (doubled by the old reliable UCLA campus), while her parents are preoccupied with a re-election campaign. Later, in response to a pratfalling plot twist, she is virtually ordered by mom to shelve school and become a full-time campaigner, begging the question: Wouldn’t it make more sense for Sam to enter college after Inauguration Day?

No doubt, but the screenwriters might have to concentrate on a school environment under those ground rules. They get some amusing mileage out of the constraints on Sam as a national teenage celebrity always attended by a Secret Service team of bodyguards — but their interest in the collegiate backdrop is superficial at best. We see snippets of one history class and some high jinks associated with a football rally. As a practical matter, the only reason Sam appears to be at Redmond is to fall in love with an attractive guy, Marc Blucas as resident dorm adviser and science major James Lampson.

Apart from James and her roommate Mia (Amerie), given to transitory attacks of jealousy, Sam seems to acquire no friends or classmates. Director Forest Whitaker is much happier when dwelling on the atmosphere of fondness, dignity and luxury that surrounds the first family. Indeed, the filmmakers take such a sympathetic view of the Mackenzies as White House tenants that “First Daughter” emerges as a blithely eccentric rebuke to the actual anti-Bush pile-on of this re-election season.

It’s gratifying to see Michael Keaton rebound after his mystifying middle-aged career stall-out. As Mackenzie, he’s a cagey charmer, even if his fictional president remains a supporting role. There’s an arresting steeliness in all three Mackenzies. Miss Holmes has some good moments when suggesting its handiness: smiling politely while listening to a faculty bore and enjoying her princess prerogatives to the max during a White House gala.

The movie’s most transparent professional agenda — the elaborate effort to give Katie Holmes a belated buildup in the tradition that extends from Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday” to Anne Hathaway in “The Princess Diaries” — works best when Mr. Whitaker keeps the mood light or glamorous. Miss Holmes’ baby face isn’t a flattering instrument for heartbreak. She’s at her cutest when Mr. Blucas fits her into his oversized Redmond U. sweatshirt.

For a while, the very premature courtship of Sam and James even looks cute enough to survive a preposterous boating interlude in a sylvan setting. Ultimately, however, “First Daughter” is so indecisive about its own matchmaking that it can’t settle on which is preferable, an exceptionally protective and virile boyfriend or a vintage Volkswagen.

It’s the sort of confusion that makes you wonder how many lovelorn Hollywood writers are needed to botch a mere trifle.

**

TITLE: “First Daughter”

RATING: PG (Fleeting sexual allusions and comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Forest Whitaker. Screenplay by Jessica Bendinger and Kate Kondell, based on a story by Miss Bendinger and Jerry O’Connell. Cinematography by Toyomichi Kurita. Production design by Alexander Hammond. Costume design by Francine Jamison. Music by Michael Kamen and Blake Neeley.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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