Better Than One
In 1999, Jim Fall directed Trick, featuring a dear, campy bit by Tori Spelling. The following year, he directed TV’s Grosse Pointe, a campy love letter to Aaron Spelling’s primetime soaps. Whether this one-two punch was a coincidence or not, it makes clear that the man has certain predilections, among them, a contagious delight in glorious affectation.
Now, he’s directed Lizzie McGuire’s transition from her enormously popular Disney TV series to her likely-to-do-just-fine Disney movie. Their pairing is more productive than you might imagine, but mostly, it’s vaguely perverse (though not enough that any Lizzie fan or her parents will be troubled). Lizzie (the near-painfully adorable Hilary Duff, who showed up at a premiere with the equally pretty Aaron Carter) is perfectly straight, as stereotypically next-door dreamy as any girl could be, she has a bit of excess about her. In the sitcom, this is made visible in her alter-ego, Animated Lizzie, who says what’s on her mind, even as Live Lizzie smiles, bites her lip and scrunches her nose, and smiles some more.
The movie doubles this doubleness. When 15-year-old Lizzie goes to Rome on a school trip, she meets a much-adored Italian pop star named Isabella (also played by Duff, with dark wig and Italiana accenta). At first, Isabella appropriately appears only on billboards, as fantasy to be gazed on by Lizzie and her classmates, primarily nice boy Gordo (Adam Lamberg) and mean (or maybe just competitive) girl Kate (Ashlie Brillault). Miranda (Lalaine) apparently couldn’t make it for the movie, though Lizzie and Gordo mention her name and status—as Lizzie’s “girl best friend”—before they board the plane and never look back.
On that plane and again in Rome, the kids engage in repeated running-time-expanding montages, in which Lizzie and whoever look up at the sights and smile, little takes of beaming faces accompanied by a pop tune. While these sequences offer a few touristy glimpses of Roman scenery, they helpfully underline the film’s raison d’être, to showcase Duff’s high-voltage appeal and admirable enthusiasm.
This is made clear as soon as Lizzie steps foot outside the hotel, and is mistaken for Isabella by excited fans. At this moment, Lizzie plays both fan (of a star she’s not yet heard sing) and star, an admittedly odd duality she handles with smiley aplomb. She’s aided in the fan part when she meets Isabella’s singing partner, the so-cute-he-might-break Paolo (Yani Gellman). Struck by the similarity in appearance between Lizzie and his absent collaborator, he convinces her to sneak off from her group to meet him at the Trevi Fountain. Eventually, he lets drop the other shoe: he needs a replacement for Isabella at the International Music Video Awards. His reason is fishy from jump (Isabella’s on an island, the company will sue if they don’t appear), and continues to mutate over the next few days. Lizzie, an endearingly gullible girl looking for adventure in Rome, believes him. And so, her adventure begins.
The bulk of this flimsy film focuses on 1) Lizzie’s pretense of illness in front of chaperone Miss Ungermeyer (Alex Borstein, weirdly channeling Christian Slater); 2) efforts by Lizzie’s truly annoying little brother, Matt (Jake Thomas), to thwart her good time, from way back in the States, where he monitors her activities on his iBook; and 3) Lizzie’s ecstatic moments with Paolo, as he drives her from monument to outdoor market to fireworks on his motorbike, usually in montage format, with a bouncy beat on the soundtrack (my favorite was Vitamin C’s weak cover of “Volare”). Lizzie is relentlessly charming throughout, even as she somehow misses Gordo’s obvious misery at her distractedness.
The movie gives her all kinds of reasons to be so distracted. Paolo’s suggestion that Lizzie can be a pop star, even for a night, surely accommodates lots of girls’ dreams. Tween Queen Duff makes this work because, for all her celebrity as Lizzie, she yet resembles a more or less “regular” girl, incarnating a healthy mix of sincerity and giddiness, fandom and stardom. Lizzie’s first appearance in the movie named for her conveys this mix: while Matt surreptitiously videotapes her (so your view of her seems somehow “furtive”), she bounces along in a corny lip-sync performance with her hairbrush s mic, bobbing her head to the beat of “The Tide is High (Get the Feeling).” Charismatic and amateurish as any tweeny girl might be, she’s a far cry from a similar scene in Crossroads, where Britney lip-syncs to Madonna (somehow, Britney doesn’t look like an amateur, though she tries really, really hard).
Lizzie’s lack of expertise—her notoriously appealing clumsiness—makes her efforts to perform like a pop star doubly delightful (at least in the eyes of her fans, the eyes that count). She stumbles, she giggles, she revels in her own ordinariness. Lizzie beams her way through a learning-the-dance-steps montage, as well as a more elaborate dress-up sequence. Here, Lizzie pretends to be Isabella at an outrageously grandiose dress designer’s studio. The designer sniffs at her “new” appearance (“She looks like a school girl!”), but goes along, as do the numerous assistants who feed her pastries and juices on silver trays, while poofing her hair and applying makeup to her perfect features.
And Lizzie/Duff is wonderfully game, teetering down a runway in a series of in an increasingly bizarre series of dresses—an inflatable igloo number, one that lights up, and another getup where she literally wears a tabloid magazine on her head. After surviving all this, under Taylor Dayne’s cover of “Supermodel,” Lizzie emerges suddenly confident. “Goodbye Lizzie McGuire, hello Fabulous!” she exults, as if there’s a difference between the two.
This crazy campy bit is only the precursor for the film’s most lunatic moment, when Lizzie, as she must, meets Isabella. Returning from her “island” at film’s end, Isabella tossing her ringlets and flaunting her nutty accenta, embraces Lizzie as someone she can trust like her own self (which, of course, she can). The split screen gimmick and the blond-brunette face-off may recall (for the parents of targeted viewers) the wildly campy confrontations between Samantha and Serena in Bewitched or Jeannie and Evil Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie. But here the close encounter—Duff meets Duff—is not about catty fighting or subterfuge. Here it’s all about self-love and girl bonding. This results in The Lizzie McGuire Movie‘s most plainly delirious multiply doublemint moment, a poppy romantic duet called “What Dreams Are Made Of.” Who needs Animated Lizzie when you can sing and dance with yourself and, even better, give yourself a hug?