- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

It was open season on the Eternal City after “Roman Holiday” 50 years ago, prompting a rival movie studio to reason that if one endearing love story could work, duplications might be irresistible. They weren’t, but “Three Coins in the Fountain” was still a huge hit the following year, and Rome acquired even more glamour as a Hollywood destination for the lovelorn.

By the time Federico Fellini made “La Dolce Vita” at the end of the 1950s, the Romans themselves seemed to be taking command of cinematic tourism. The municipal film office is now so indiscriminate that “The Lizzie McGuire Movie,” a generic pestilence derived from a juvenile comedy series on the Disney Channel, has been permitted the run of the joint — the Trevi Fountain conspicuously included. The movie’s most imposing comic-relief caricature, Alex Borstein as a bossy middle school chaperone named Miss Ungermeyer, considers herself on such familiar terms with the site that she alludes to it as “this bad boy.”

Ignorance of the Lizzie McGuire phenomenon had been a comfort before I sampled her very first movie showcase, at which point, familiarity quickly provoked contempt and pity. I gather from the preview showing and publicity hearsay that Lizzie and her double, Hilary Duff, who supposedly is 15 going on 16, have a loyal following. How loyal it will remain after watching her play the demure, ever-so-lucky klutz on the big screen remains to be calculated, but I certainly have laid eyes on more flattering and proficient star vehicles. Even for pipsqueaks. The facetious bunglers entrusted with Lizzie ought to be lashed with remnants of Shirley Temple’s frilly skirts.

The misadventure begins as Lizzie supposedly is graduating from middle school and preparing to depart on a class excursion to Rome. Her girlish vanities are taped surreptitiously by a cretinous kid brother, Matt (Jake Thomas), who seems to imagine that they might have blackmail potential. The privileged moments consist of Lizzie mimicking a rock star in her mirror and falling with a thud, which she does repeatedly. It’s surprising that another character isn’t inserted to yell “Timber” each time she impacts.

Matt later is revealed to be putty in the hands of an even more cretinous adolescent, a teen dominatrix named Melina (Carly Schroeder), the real mercenary and brains of the extortion gang. You’ll also be astonished to hear that Lizzie has well-meaning, oblivious, ineffectual parents, impersonated by Hallie Todd and Robert Carradine, who seemed to have a franchise of his own 20 years ago when “Revenge of the Nerds” was released. How fickle the medium is.

The middle school culture caused me some problems because I’m inclined to believe Miss Duff and most of the students in camera range have been permitted to underestimate their ages by five to 15 years, a standard fudge factor when casting movies, but still a stumbling block. Perhaps this is the Southern California Middle School for Very Slow Learners and Chronic Repeaters.

Once in Rome, Lizzie has to pretend to be on sick call in her hotel room in order to be seduced and conned by an Italian pop singer, Paolo (Yani Gellman), who also takes her for sightseeing rides on his red scooter, accompanied by such ethnic classics as “Volare.” Treacherous Paolo has called attention to the curious fact that Lizzie is a ringer for his runaway partner, Isabella, destined to turn up as Miss Duff in dark hair and an Italian accent, disguises that seem to improve her performance.

The double role naturally arouses suspicion that the Lizzie challenge is no longer enough to get the creative juices percolating. Acting ingenuous and clumsy doesn’t look like a bed of roses. It’s genuinely amusing to discover that the whole point of the runaround has been to clear the stage for Miss Duff, obliged to dazzle a European concert audience by dueting with herself. Not since Mariah Carey’s “Glitter” has a musical triumph looked so hollow.

Lizzie also has a cartoon alter ego inserted to express emotions she keeps bottled up. A persuasive case could be made for going 100 percent cartoon because this is the domain of the more demonstrative and versatile Lizzie. Miss Duff seems to be a Project Cupcake rather than a headliner. She bears a facial resemblance to Deborah Walley, Sandra Dee’s now obscure replacement as Gidget. Miss Walley was the Gidget who went to Hawaii but didn’t make the cut for Rome. “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” may have a captive audience out there, but it would be merciful to revoke all the passports before anyone demands a sequel.

*

TITLE: “The Lizzie McGuire Movie”

RATING: PG (Fleeting comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Jim Fall. Written by Susan Estelle Jansen, Ed Decter and John J. Strauss. Cinematography by Jerzy Zielinski. Production design by Douglas Higgins. Costume design by Monique Prudhomme and David Robinson. Music by Cliff Eidelman

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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