- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2001

In years to come, it may be satisfying to recall that you saw "The Princess Diaries," directed by Garry Marshall, and "Ghost World," directed by Terry Zwigoff, as soon as possible when they opened on the same day in August. Meaning today. They're the best reasons for patronizing the movies this weekend: coincidental comedies about misfit high school girls that take different routes to endearing and probably memorable destinations.
Close geographically — "Diaries" is set in San Francisco and "Ghost World" in an unspecified Northern California town — and identical in running time — 111 minutes — the pictures diverge sharply in ratings. The former reclaims the G for live-action Hollywood comedy; the latter is casually in harmony with R standards of candor. Between the similarities and contrasts, a rewarding set of impressions awaits moviegoing America.
Mr. Marshall demonstrates the advantages of 40 years of show-business savvy while steering "The Princess Diaries" on its easygoing and ingratiating course. He protects his movie's suitability for a mass audience of all ages by avoiding coarse dialogue and smutty situations.
Nevertheless, "Diaries" remains unharmed as a playful, invigorating movie farce. Evidently, not everyone has forgotten how to formulate a comedy without exaggerating lewdness or blandness.
"Diaries" also proves a clever update on "Roman Holiday," which seems to have eluded worthy imitation for almost 50 years. Like William Wyler entrusted with the young Audrey Hepburn, Mr. Marshall gets to showcase an auspicious starring debut: the emergence of a fresh and delightful newcomer named Anne Hathaway, cast as a prep school girl named Amelia Thermopolis, Mia for short.
The heroine is a temporary sort of lanky ugly duckling, still inhibited by retainers, clumsiness, ignorance and unruly hair. She discovers that she is the sole legitimate heir — through the late European father she never met — to a tiny kingdom called Genovia, which takes particular pride in its pear harvest.
Despite its dinkiness, Genovia has certain advantages that become clear to Mia. Her acceptance of the family heritage and burden also would prevent a comic calamity: the elevation of a stout Genovian nobleman and his sharp-beaked spouse.
Although Mr. Marshall dawdles over certain episodes, his comic instincts make admirably quick work of other matters. When the usurper boasts that the face of his wife eventually will adorn a Genovian postage stamp, you realize that Mia can spare an entire country from merciless ridicule.
The impulse to rave about Anne Hathaway probably should be resisted for the time being, at least until she has had time to graduate from college, but her promise defies discretion.
At once a comic and sentimental godsend, she could single-handedly restore "natural" and distinctive feminine radiance to a position of competitive advantage in Hollywood, which prefers to reduce most of its ingenues to a condition of copycat sluttiness.
I suppose Angelina Jolie is safe, but the Jennifer Love Hewitts of the business could be obsolete if Miss Hathaway charms the nation and makes it easier for attractive young women to be confident about their photogenic faces and figures.
There's no law that says they have to conform to the oversculpted, overchiseled and often cartoonish norms that pass for fashionable desirability among Hollywood style setters, who seem to resist variety when hawking starlets.
To the extent that Miss Hathaway resembles a prominent actress facially, the closest double probably is Deborah Massing of TV's "Will & Grace." They could pass as sisters — mother and daughter if it were possible to envision Miss Massing as a comic heroine who graduated to marriage or motherhood.
Miss Hathaway seems to arrive with an amusing face and falls. One of the latter, while walking up a flight of bleachers in a schoolyard, clearly is accidental and painful, but she reacts like a trouper. Mr. Marshall buries her best skid so deep in the end credits that only moviegoers who linger will be aware of it.
Armed with a sublime new attraction, Mr. Marshall and his collaborators also make room for an engaging regal masquerade by Julie Andrews as Mia's maternal grandmother, Clarissa, the widowed queen mother of Genovia. Newly arrived in San Francisco and also a stranger to Mia, she hopes to appeal to a family pride the girl never has actually experienced.
According to the plot, Mia's mother, Helen, played by Caroline Goodall, had a brief fling with the late Prince of Genovia in her Continent-touring youth; then the young lovers went their separate ways.
Helen settled in San Francisco, where the press describes her as "a local eclectic artist" once the news is out that Clarissa is in town, tutoring an ordinary teen-ager to become a princess.
Absorbed in school and susceptible to many distractions and insecurities, Mia is a reluctant candidate at the outset. In fact, she nurses justifiable grudges against Helen and Clarissa for keeping her in the dark.
Nevertheless, she agrees to meet with her grandmother for a series of polishing lessons, which could use more in the way of both witty and authentic etiquette pointers.
However, the lessons culminate in a wonderful interlude with a makeup expert named Paolo (Larry Miller in an unbilled role). Despite his vainglorious goofiness, Paolo gives Mia a makeover that opens her eyes — to a maturity and elegance she had not suspected but recognizes as enormously flattering.
Mia's decision also threatens to sabotage her friendship with Heather Matarazzo as the school radical, Lily Moscovitz, suspicious of any deviation from severe looks and disapproving standards.
Lily could be a soul mate of the disdainful high school pals of "Ghost World," Enid and Becky. Seeing the movies in tandem should increase appreciation for both sets of characters — and for the maturing processes they need to endure.
Gina Wendkos seems to have written a swell reconciliation scene for Mia and Lily, punctuated by Miss Matarazzo's uncanny accuracy with a basketball.
Sometimes you wish Garry Marshall could duplicate her touch. His inconsistencies are a little perplexing. He'll get bogged down in irrelevancies (notably a high school beach party that backfires on Mia) and then finesse throwaway gems of slapstick or pathos. Maybe he shouldn't agonize over any particular scene. When he's on the beam and in sync with his cast, "The Princess Diaries" is an enchanting entertainment.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide