Star power is everything. That’s how it used to be back in the golden days of the Tinsel Town studio system. Acting was never priority number one. Instead, the way a man or woman commanded the camera, the direct connection with the audience beyond the character or the performance, were the key to cinematic success. Few in the current crop of celebrity have this special trait. Most get by on a combination of publicity and hype-enforced popularity. But if you’re looking for a post-modern example of this old school ideal, then Amanda Bynes is your amiable icon. After years making Nickelodeon’s kid vid offerings (All That, The Amanda Show) eminently watchable, and delivering the WB one of its few sitcom hits (What I Like About You), she’s finally branched out into features.
With her winsome, wholesome persona and slightly kooky undercurrent, she’s like a Bratz Lucille Ball, a seemingly serious actress who can easily slip on the requisite banana peels when needed. Though she’s currently geared toward the tween to Pinkberry set, her potential easily surpasses her demographical reach. That’s why the winning Sydney White is such an important step for the star. Now available from Universal on an excellent DVD release, this wonderfully effective film is her first foray into quasi-adult fare. As a result, it functions as a future career gauge, measuring how much true star staying power she really has.
This is a film that relies on Bynes’ innate ability to be both comely and klutzy in a scene. When she meets BMOC fraternity president (and future beau) Tyler Prince, her ridiculous ramblings are cute and corny. Similarly, her interaction with the resident rejects of the all dork Vortex House reminds us of how fragile the combination of coming of age awkwardness and adolescent awakening can be. Yet our young actress maneuvers through such tenuous circumstances with grace, wit, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder. One of the best traits Bynes brings to her roles is the sense of freshness. We never doubt the shock of her reactions, nor are her responses over-rehearsed or rote. Instead, we feel as if life is constantly surprising this sprite, and her good natured, normative takes come naturally, not out of some screenwriter’s notebook.
Wisely, Nussbaum surrounds Bynes with actors capable of conveying a similar snap. As the prime villain, Sara Paxton’s “witchy” Rachel is the perfect blond baddie. She’s all pampered and privileged poison, without a single saving sentiment. As the rightly named Prince, Matt Long has a too good to be true quality that should have the adolescent gals in the audience wiggling in their wish fulfillment. While his ‘feeding the homeless’ hunkiness may be a bit much, this actor finds a way to make it work. Some of the best moments, however, come from the seven likeable losers, performers like Jack Carpenter (winning as the nebbish Lenny), Danny Strong (the perpetually pissed-off blogger, Gurkin) and Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine (as horndog dope Spanky) turning stereotypes into individuals with effortless engagement.
In fact, it’s proper to compare Sydney White favorably to the classic college comedies of the ‘80s, especially the smarter, sassier ones like Real Genius. While Nussbaum and his writer Chad Gomez Creasey realize the need to keep the mentality geared toward the middle school marketplace, they also infuse the film with lots of grown up grins. When the Vortex dweebs head off onto the Student Body President Campaign trail, the classic sing-along “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” gives one of its words a satiric, contemporary nod. Similarly, Rachel’s set of “calming words” come across as a Super Sweet 16 registry list. A few of the jokes are obvious, and the narrative can’t help but follow traditional plot contrivances, but since both actors and filmmakers are trying everything to avoid cliché, the truisms don’t seem so tacky.
As part of the DVD package, Universal includes some interesting extras. Director Nussbaum gets an opportunity to explain his motives and what drew him to the project in a sitdown Q&A, while he’s also around to introduce a collection of intriguing deleted scenes. Many in the cast, including Bynes and the dorks, get a chance to play EPK with the film, praising each other and their efforts. From specific set design choices to dealing with the various personalities on set, the material here all leads to one conclusion - everyone here tried really hard to make a sunny, successful comedy. And they succeeded.
In fact, it’s clear that what we wind up with is an obvious throwback to the Disney University cavalcades of the mid ‘60s, movies where Kurt Russell shined as genial undergrad Dexter Reilly. All that’s missing is the supernatural/sci-fi premise, the occasional slapstick setpiece, and Cesar Romero as a too suave underworld figure. Yet the same pleasure principles clearly apply. A movie like Sydney White is only out to entertain, to provide the emotional underpinning that will get us through the various purposeful plot machinations. It will establish sides, provide motivation, clarify the characters, and then deliver everything in a clean, convincing manner. We may not end up with something special, or overly endearing, but there will be no denying its effervescent entertainment qualities. You’ll leave happy, and hardly embarrassed.
It also provides proof that Amanda Bynes is the next big thing, a Meg Ryan in the making who will one day dominate the cinematic stratosphere. As long as she continues to mark time, putting in professional work both as star (She’s the Man) and sidekick (she was great in the musical hit Hairspray) there is nothing but fame in her future. Unlike so many others in her former child star position, she appears resolute on building a career, not a criminal record. And pure star power is the foundation. Perfect for the kids and inviting for adults, Sydney White is a surprisingly effective film that produces nothing but piles of smiles…and Amanda Bynes is the reason why.
// Notes from the Road
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