If you killed off Lizzie McGuire's entire family and sent her to live with an evil stepmother and two stepsisters in the Valley, you'd have the basic setup for "A Cinderella Story," the banal, contemporary update of the popular fairy tale that stars Hilary Duff, best known as the Disney Channel poster girl.
It's not such a grisly stretch when you consider that "Cinderella" director Mark Rosman is responsible for the 1983 horror flick and cult favorite "House on Sorority Row." More recently, however, Rosman has worked with Duff on "Lizzie McGuire" and directed a handful of other Disney Channel kidcoms as well as accumulating a fair number of cable feature credits. Unfortunately, "Cinderella" feels like a pro forma TV movie from the get-go and relies almost entirely on Duff's likability to hold the audience's attention.
Duff plays Sam Montgomery, a high school senior whose bleak life includes waiting hand and foot on her stepmother and stepsiblings and working hard at the diner once run by her father -- while somehow maintaining an incredibly sunny demeanor. In a prologue, 8-year-old Sam (played by Hannah Robinson) leads a blissfully motherless existence with her father, Hal (Whip Hubley). Happiness comes to an abrupt end with Hal's marriage to Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge) and the incorporation of her twin daughters, Brianna (Madeline Zima) and Gabriella (Andrea Avery), into the household.
The movie takes a major misstep by using the 1994 Northridge earthquake to eliminate dear old Dad and leave Sam to the devices of Fiona and her girls. By including an actual deadly event and glossing over it with brief narration, the filmmakers shatter any hope of creating a modern-day fantasy. Presumably they are counting on their target audience not being old enough to remember the quake.
"Cinderella" then flashes forward to the present, when Sam is aspiring to acceptance to Princeton and channeling her frustrations into bashing batting practice softballs. Fiona, meanwhile, has turned Hal's authentically retro diner into a garish nightmare where the waitresses roller-skate and wear poodle skirts and Paul Rodriguez, as the cook, tries to squeeze the boss's latest fetishes onto the menu.
Sam's only respite from studying, serving Fiona salmon and scrubbing floors is a secret admirer with whom she swaps poetic text messages and e-mails. An invitation to rendezvous with the mystery man at a Halloween costume dance sets in motion the rest of the desultory fairy-tale plotting of Leigh Dunlap's screenplay.
There's a hip fairy godmother in the diner's manager, Rhonda (Regina King in the film's best and most grounded performance), a race to ready Sam for the masked ball -- er, Halloween dance -- and even a glass slipper in the form of a dropped cellphone.
Though Duff's Sam is more serious and less goofy than her Lizzie McGuire persona, both characters share a luminous quality that is part of the actress' appeal. Regrettably, Duff and her leading man, Chad Michael Murray, as Austin Ames, the star quarterback and closet poet, don't generate much chemistry. In fact, the scenes with Sam's nebbish pal Carter, played by Dan Byrd (sort of a teen Michael J. Pollard), are more fun.
There's a lack of coherence between the John Hughes turf carved out by Duff and her high school cohorts and the part of the movie inhabited by Fiona. Coolidge is way over the top in her performance as the ultimate stepmonster, obviously relishing the opportunity to play a villainess.
However, the cartoonish nature of her Cruella De Vil turn, and a steady stream of Botox and liposuction jokes, swamp the rest of the movie.
There are glimmers of subversion in the film, but they flash by so quickly they may have been accidental.
'A Cinderella Story'
MPAA rating: PG for mild language and innuendo
Times guidelines: Some smooching and the loss of both parents (but it's glossed over)
Chad Michael Murray...Austin Ames
A Clifford Werber production, in association with Dylan Sellers Productions, released by Warner Bros. Director Mark Rosman. Producers Clifford Werber, Ilyssa Goodman, Hunt Lowry, Dylan Sellers. Executive producers E.K. Gaylord II, Michael Rachmil, Peter Greene, Keith Giglio. Screenplay by Leigh Dunlap. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond. Editor Cara Silverman. Costume designer Denise Wingate. Music Christophe Beck. Production designer Charles Breen. Art director Gary Diamond. Set decorator Jeffrey Kushon. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. In general release.