Coming to All That
Anna Foster (Mandy Moore) first appears in Chasing Liberty in a mirror, trying on outfits and putting on makeup. Cute as can be, she decides on an appropriately comely ensemble, as the camera pulls out through her bedroom window, up and out, until you see that she’s in the White House. Anna, you see, is the President’s daughter, and so, after she skips down the stairway and out the front door to her date’s car, she will be followed by a veritable convoy of government cars—her very own Secret Service team.
She is, as indicated by the song playing during this sequence, an “American Girl.” Indeed, she is the “American Girl,” a model of privilege and poise, at least until the date is ruined by the Secret Service agents’ overreaction to a perceived threat. Her date bails, claiming that, as nice as she is, he can’t handle the pressure of being First Boyfriend. Furious that she’s unable to live a “normal” or even very “American” life, she storms into dad’s office (that would be the oval one), complaining of the team’s overzealousness. Poor kid: it’s hard to be the focus of so much attention, to feel so restricted in one’s movements, and to have so many expectations heaped upon you. Even if the flipside means you have all sorts of money and opportunity and experience beyond your years.
Anna’s story is, of course, not so unlike Moore’s own. As a pop star who, like many, started young, she’s had to accommodate expectations. For one notorious instance, she pursed her red lips and jaunted her hip in the jailbait music video for “Candy,” her first single. These days, her once-blond hair now dark, her erstwhile sex-kitteny affect exchanged for a more demure young womanhood, she’s describing her embarrassment about “Candy” to anyone who asks: “It was like a totally different person,” she tells MTV, “The way they had my hair, my makeup and stuff, and that wasn’t me. ‘Cause I’m not a really like outlandish person when it comes to all that.”
Indeed, when it comes to all that, Moore has gone on to choose music projects that counter the “outlandish” image. Late last year, for instance, she released Coverage, a collection of covers of ‘70s tunes, like “I Feel the Earth Move.” Her movie choices are similarly geared to show her seriousness: The Princess Diaries in 2001, A Walk to Remember and the straight-to-video All I Want in 2002, and 2003’s How to Deal all showcase her evolving skills, even if they’re not very special as movies. Indeed, she’s been taking acting lessons (apparently unlike other pop stars becoming movie stars whose initials are B.S.).
Just so, Chasing Liberty is another vehicle made to fit Moore’s development as an artist. Anna is a self-assured, mostly sensible girl, chafing at restrictions during her father’s (Mark Harmon) second term in office. That is, she’s been a good girl for five years, and now that she’s emerging from adolescence (she’s 18), she’s ready to step out. Even her mother (Caroline Goodall) takes her part, suggesting that dad’s being overprotective, and that during their next trip—to a G8 Summit meeting in Prague—he might just loosen up a little.
The trip to Europe—where Anna has a royal friend from childhood—underlines the wee paradox that Chasing Liberty must incorporate: the responsibility and affluence that come with being President (or First Daughter) makes feeling sorry for Anna, at least occasionally, something of a stretch. Or maybe it doesn’t: for a target viewer, say, a girl between 8 and 14 years old—Anna’s predicament is as resonant or sympathetic as any facing any movie princess, from Shirley Temple to Anne Hathaway. President Harmon’s, er, Foster’s combination of caring and distractedness is not exactly a new concept in movies about girls. That said, his general cynicism—more precisely, his presumption that he can lie outright to Anna without cost—is fairly discomforting.
This lie takes the form of agreeing to Anna and her mom’s terms (she can go out one night in Prague with only one agent in tow), then not assigning all the folks he wants anyway. (Whether or not this conduct fits with his governing style is not indicated in the film.) Specifically, Foster assigns a passel of agents to hang nod their heads on a sweaty-body-filled dance floor, plus two head agents—Alan Weiss (Jeremy Piven, without John Cusack) and Cynthia Morales (Annabella Sciorra)—and then another, undercover agent, Ben Calder (Matthew Goode). He’s dashing, sports tight jeans and a charming British accent, and bumps into her on cue. He also has a cell phone he uses to keep in touch with his employers whenever he can escape the increasingly adoring eye of his charge.
For, as tends to happen in such movies, Anna falls in love with her handsome and polite guardian, so that she can feel betrayed by him when she learns his true identity. Vaguely reminiscent of Roman Holiday, the rest of the plot entails her scampering off to have “commoners’” fun with Ben, with final destination Berlin’s Love Parade. Said fun includes getting drunk, skinnydipping in the Vltava River, and losing all her cash and cards to a conman backpacker (Martin Hancock). She’s game for hitchhiking and, eventually, following a romantic gondola ride in Venice and a tandem bungee jump off a bridge in Austria, first time sex with Ben. This final step, of course, puts him in a bit of a bind with viewers who don’t want to see the First Daughter or Mandy Moore giving it up for just any pretty boy. And so the film has to do some plotty loop-de-loops to demonstrate Ben’s swell intentions.
Probity and PG-13 concerns always add to a film’s clunk-factor, meaning, they often slow down the action so that any misperceptions can be thoroughly and completely explained away. Here, too many minutes are spent ensuring that you know Anna’s not a slut and Ben’s not a jerk: they’re just too kids who aren’t so good at telling the truth (and is it any wonder, given her dad/his employer?). For all Anna and Ben’s literal traveling, and for all Moore’s bona fide charisma and earnest energy, Chasing Liberty just can’t get moving.