After the liberating misbehavior of Bad Teacher and Bridesmaids, prudes can take solace in the girls-behaving-nicely comedy Monte Carlo, which has all the freewheeling, spontaneous raunch of The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Actually, in its broad outlines, Monte Carlo more or less is The Lizzie McGuire Movie, following a recent graduate (here from high school instead of junior high) on a trip to Europe who discovers an improbable celebrity doppelganger and engages in mistaken-identity-meets-wish-fulfillment shenanigans.
So, Monte Carlo is an airy tween-friendly fantasy. But still, director Thomas Bezucha treats it as if it might bear actual human emotion. He made the well-observed comedy-drama The Family Stone, which may explain why he’s inclined to pay attention to the relationship between Grace (Selena Gomez) and her older stepsister Meg (Leighton Meester), at least at first. Grace wants to escape Texas and see Paris with her best friend and fellow waitress Emma (Katie Cassidy) in tow, but her mom (Andie MacDowell) and stepfather (Brett Cullen) insist that Meg (an old high school classmate of Emma’s) accompany the girls to Paris.
Gomez really is about 18, like Grace, and Meester is only a few years older than Meg, who is entering her senior year of college. But onscreen, the two of them look like they could be a decade apart, as Gomez’s baby-faced features contrast with Meester’s put-together attempts at adulthood: they’re close in age, but far apart in sensibility. The film doesn’t milk this premise for melodrama, though, focusing instead on the low-key awkwardness between the two semi-sisters. This gives Gomez, sweet but a little stiff, an opportunity to pal around with Meester, a fellow television-to-film transplant.
Despite the near sensitivity and potential complexity of this relationship, the movie doesn’t stray too far from the vacation-movie template, which dictates the appearance of a wacky tour guide and weird electrical outlets. Soon the girls are unaccountably disappointed in their Paris tour. Before it occurs to them to just, you know, break off from the group and walk around at their own pace, Grace is mistaken for spoiled heiress Cordelia Winthrop Scott (also Gomez, also slightly stiff) and presented with the opportunity to fly off to Monte Carlo for a charity auction—which the real Cordelia disdains, naturally.
From there, the girls enjoy the usual brushes with luxury hotel rooms and chaste romance. Grace, in the guise of Cordelia, meets the wealthy Theo (Pierre Boulanger), and Meg has several chance encounters with the charming Australian Riley (Luke Bracey), a rootless lone traveler (“He’s a hobo!” a teenage girl cried at the screening I attended). The movie is so dependent on the girls’ love interests that it even drags Emma’s Texas boyfriend Owen (Cory Monteith) overseas for a pointless subplot.
Bezucha cuts between these coupled adventures breezily, and composes some whimsically pleasing shots, like Riley and Meg on a scooter crisscrossing the path of Grace and Theo in a convertible, neither girl realizing it. He shoots this material like a real movie, not a gussied-up sitcom. Almost as important is what Bezucha doesn’t do: even though the story of Monte Carlo threatens to replay every Hilary Duff/Miley Cyrus/Amanda Bynes fantasy at once, it thankfully avoids shoehorning in any singing scenes for Gomez, and never descends into outright idiocy.
But it never gets many laughs, either. The movie sort of floats away and dissipates before it’s over. The screenplay can’t transcend the formula’s frothy cuteness, but at least it is actually cute, rather than cloying. Tween girls, the readjusted target audience (the script is based loosely on a book about four middle-aged women, presumably more Carrie and Samantha than Lizzie), could do (and have done) a lot worse than a movie that’s merely slightly fun.