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In updating the 1961 The Parent Trap for the cynical ’90s, writer-director Nancy Meyers and writer-producer Charles Shyer have made two significant changes, one that makes the scenario more plausible and one that makes it less so: The separated-near-birth heroines, Hallie and Annie (both played by Lindsay Lohan), have been downsized to 11 years old from 14, rendering their intense relationship with their respective parents more believable. But Annie and mother Elizabeth (Natasha Richardson) have moved from Boston to London, which makes it highly unlikely that Elizabeth would send Annie to the same American summer camp that father Nick (Dennis Quaid) would select for Hallie.
Such improbabilities fade, of course, next to the central absurdity of the plot: that Nick and Elizabeth would have married, split soon after the birth of twins, each taken one of the daughters and never told her she’s a twin, and then entered lives of blissful, upscale celibacy. Thus, when the girls finally do meet, there’s only one obstacle to their plot to pose as each other and reunite their rich, charming, attractive, and unattached fashion-designer mother and vineyard-owner father: 26-year-old gold digger Meredith (Elaine Hendrix), who’s moved in on Nick while Hallie was at camp fencing, playing poker, and conspiring with her newly discovered sister.
Discovering your other self and repairing your parents’ marriage have a primal appeal, but Meyers and Shyer (who also updated Father of the Bride, with Shyer directing) are never interested in anything other than the most superficial and sentimental readings of their chosen texts. The intrigue seems to culminate at a San Francisco hotel that Hallie and Annie have chosen as the meeting place for their long-separated parents. As the various characters gradually realize what’s going on, it becomes clear what The Parent Trap is: a sex farce for 11-year-olds, which is to say, without sex. Rather than conclude crisply with the second act, however, the filmmakers force the story to drag on through several more episodes. It’s as if they think Nick and Elizabeth’s preposterous reunion will be more convincing if they just put it off for another half-hour.
Like Sliding Doors, The Parent Trap imagines London as an absolutely splendid place to have a doppelganger. Whereas the former movie is set in a sanitized version of contemporary London, however, this one exists out of time, in a fusty but cute city of butlers, limousines, and venerable red phone boxes, where every scene unfolds in or beside a recognizable tourist attraction. When Elizabeth and Hallie (masquerading as Annie) go for a walk, they stroll the famed Abbey Road pedestrian crosswalk while a knockoff of “Here Comes the Sun” plays in the background.
On this point, Meyers and Shyer may not be entirely in sync with contemporary 11-year-old taste. The girls’ good times are scored to ’60s pop rock (the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”) and its recent counterpart (the La’s’ “There She Goes”); Northern California sophistication is expressed by pre-rock standards (Nat King Cole’s “L O V E,” Ray Charles and Berry Carter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”). Meanwhile, Meredith’s infamy is established when she drives up in a sports car blaring hiphop. The Parent Trap is not just battling for the inviolability of the nuclear family; it’s on a crusade against the present.
The Parent Trap is a fairy tale, but Ever After is really a fairy tale. It’s Cinderella, introduced by a conversation between the Brothers Grimm and a woman who claims she’s a descendent of the real “little cinder girl.” (This woman is played by Jeanne Moreau, the second French new wave icon to appear this month in a cinematic children’s fable, following Stephane Audran’s turn in Madeline.) Purporting to tell the real love story of Danielle (Drew Barrymore) and Prince Henry (Dougray Scott), director-co-writer Andy Tennant reimagines the tale in 16th-century France, replacing the fairy godmother with Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), who just happens to be passing through.
That’s the wrong Leonardo to enlist for such a movie, of course, which is just the first of many miscalculations. Presumably, Ever After was approved for production after the success of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Danielle’s ball gown even echoes the one worn by Claire Danes in that movie, but placing contemporary stars and sensibilities in the past is much trickier than dragging Shakespeare into the present. Anjelica Huston, who’s had plenty of training in playing bad mothers and witches, is a persuasive wicked stepmother, but ’90s bad-girl Barrymore is utterly unconvincing as the proto-feminist paragon who charms Henry as she questions the system that made him a prince. She’s clearly trapped in the wrong century, although this is something she shares with the script, which includes such anachronisms as “have it in spades,” “I’m management,” “He was addicted to the written word,” and “It’s not about love.”
It is, of course: Danielle and Henry are in love from the first time they converse, when he recognizes the quotation from More’s Utopia she uses to denounce the existing social order. That order, however, makes the match impossible: Danielle is a commoner who’s treated as a servant by her stepmother and stepsisters (although one of the latter is a more sympathetic character than her fairy-tale counterpart). The slightly doltish Henry doesn’t seem a particularly bookish type, but he does hang out with Leonardo and take Danielle to a local Franciscan library on their first date.
Danielle and Henry’s developing relationship undermines the traditional essence of the story: When Danielle arrives at the royal ball, she’s no glamorous stranger but instead an intellectual equal who has already used her physical strength to rescue the prince from marauding gypsies. (Like all members of the underclass in Ever After, the gypsies turn out to be pretty nice fellows once you get to know them.) Inspired by Danielle, Henry has decided his goal in life is to found an open-admission university. That’s fine, but it’s not exactly Cinderella. This stolidly well-meaning version of the tale not only jettisons the singing mice, it also precludes the French Revolution.
Getting knocked up makes the world go ’round, reckons writer-director Theresa Connelly’s first feature, Polish Wedding. Matrimony is the result not of the honeyed domesticity of The Parent Trap or intellectual rapport like that shared by Danielle and Henry, but a hurried moment of false intimacy somewhere in the back seats or back alleys of Connelly’s native Hamtramck, Mich. This movie, by the way, is a comedy.
In Polish Wedding’s crucial scene, the Pzoniak clan’s improbably glamorous matriarch Jadzia (Lena Olin) and her recently installed daughter-in-law Sofie (Mili Avital) both admit that they snared their husbands by getting pregnant. The third participant in the conversation, Jadzia’s aimless, unschooled teenage daughter Hala (Claire Danes), is now expecting, the result of a brief encounter with local cop Russell (Adam Trese). This pregnancy is an occasion for hypocrisy, Jadzia is not happy to learn of Hala’s condition, and irony: Hala has recently been selected to lead a parade honoring the Virgin at the local parish.
Hala’s pregnancy doesn’t really pose much of a crisis, though. Indeed, the earthy, accepting Pzoniaks are preternaturally composed about such matters. Patriarch Bolek (Gabriel Byrne) doesn’t seem especially upset when he finally confirms his suspicions that Jadzia is having an affair with businessman Roman (Rade Serbedzija), and Hala is more a force of nature than a source of embarrassment to her parents and four brothers. Her face framed by extravagant curls, Hala walks barefoot through Hamtramck like a Rust Belt sprite, and she dons her sister-in-law’s wedding dress to go confront Russell.
Polish Wedding is full of such overdramatic touches, including Jadzia’s soapy-water tryst with Roman on a men’s room floor. Jadzia declares that “making life…is my religion,” and upstages the Virgin at the parade in the latter’s honor; when the priest asks Mary to “intercede for us,” it’s Jadzia who does the interceding. Still, the film is fundamentally low-key. Jadzia may be hot-blooded, not to mention the loveliest cleaning woman in Michigan, if not the entire country, but the film is grounded by Byrne’s Bolek, a baker who can accept his lot because, after all, “I make good bread.”
The performances of Byrne, Olin, and Danes almost make this domestic parable credible, but Connelly’s script contains more schtick than insight. The necessity of sexual reproduction aside, not every high school dropout who gets pregnant by a casual acquaintance is a blessing. In its wrong-side-of-the-tracks way, Polish Wedding is just as much of a fable as The Parent Trap or Ever After.
After all these unconvincingly upbeat tales of smart, self-reliant girls and women, the bad vibes of first-time writer-director Susan Skoog’s Whatever are almost refreshing. Reviewed in City Paper when it screened at Filmfest D.C., this is yet another inquiry into the sexual awakening of teenage girls. Art school-bound Anna (Liza Weil) is a virgin, and her flashier best pal Brenda (Chad Morgan) is not, but both are busy looking for trouble with booze and drugs, older men and ex-cons. The film starts authoritatively and includes a few carefully observed scenes, notably Anna’s first sexual encounter, which is a disappointment both physically and emotionally. Once the girls skip school for an adventure in New York, however, the narrative starts to meander. Probably a half-hour too long at 112 minutes, Whatever proves short on style and drive.CP