It looks like the Duff sisters are having fun in Material Girls. Playing Tanzie and Ava Marchetta, spoiled heiresses to a cosmetics company fortune, Hilary and Haylie get to wear Jimmy Choos and elaborate makeup, drive a snappy red Mercedes, and—special bonus—make fun of those red carpet appearances they must endure in real life. Poor dears. As actors playing interviewers stick microphones in their faces, the Duffs/Marchettas pose and coo, performing like air-headed tweens even though they’ve outgrown such parts.
Presumably, they’re not quite playing themselves, as the parodic aspects are broad. The real sisters, for instance, would surely never assume that their hardworking, utterly sensible Colombian maid—here named Inez and played by the venerable Maria Conchita Alonso—has no substance in her life beyond her employers’ view. And surely they have washed a dish or two during their lifetimes. But it’s fun to make fun of spoiled rich girls, not least because it suggests you have perspective on your own image as same.
As the movie begins, the girls are, most fabulously, “the face of Marchetta,” not only inheriting the company (their father Victor is recently dead and much-missed; their mother long-dead and hardly mentioned), but also serving as the ad campaign model. (This is introduced under the Duffs’ decidedly unimaginative cover of “Material Girl.”) Their regular appearances on billboards and TV make the Marchettas celebrities of the Hilton sisters sort, every night attending an event, slipping their lithe legs from limos and smiling for ever-flashing cameras. Ava quite adores the life, even keeping TV soap star Mic (Brandon Beemer) as a fiancé. But Tanzie would rather be home studying chemistry; she’s applying to UCLA, where she hopes to continue her father’s legacy, conjuring “natural” cosmetics for needy women all over the world.
Their perfect universe collapses when a Los Angeles tv news reporter says that their dad covered up evidence of some face cream causing hideous damage to women’s faces, lining him up alongside Big Tobacco and the chemical companies exposed by Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Tanzie’s favorite movie. As soon as the scandal becomes public, their dad’s good name is ruined, angry protestors show up at the Marchettas’ mansion, and the press starts hounding the girls in packs. This news comes on top of an announcement by dad’s old partner, ex-boxing promoter Tommy (Brent Spiner) that “Our future is in the crapper,” and leads to a vote by the board of directors to sell out to rival Fabiella (Anjelica Huston), for 60 cents on the dollar.
Woe is the Marchetta sisters!
There’s more. Material Girls delights in showing how unlike the rest of “us” the rich girls are, punishing them scene by scene for being air-headed and narcissistic. When the scandal surfaces and their names are mud in L.A., the sisters wonder what to do. “Regular people,” observes the comparably more in-touch Tanzie, “get pets” to avoid feeling lonely. The sisters, instead, spend an evening applying facials and nail polish. They also get into a spat—ostensibly over Ava’s instant decision to smoke a conveniently placed cigarette—accidentally fling the offending object into a nail polish remover spill, and, oh my goodness, burn the mansion down.
With no place to live or a way to get around (they hand off their Mercedes keys to a couple of unconvincingly hip-hop white boys whom they mistake for valets—the film’s association of hip-hop with criminality just one of its many tedious stereotypes), the sisters seek help from Inez, who lets them live in her apartment. Here she attempts to instruct the girls on living like poor people, that is, without platinum credit cards, servants, or lunchtime massages.
They are, it’s plain enough, better off without their faux friends (Mic sends his agent to tell Ava the engagement is over, a fabulously gay hanger-on, Etienne [Ty Hodges], almost trips over his own shoes as he scrambles to hide from them at a party). But they’re also in need of a plot beyond breaking their heels and mussing their makeup, to sustain a 97-minute running time. So Tanzie and Ava also decide to investigate the case against their father, believing it to be false. The fact that it takes Tanzie nearly the entire 97 minutes to recognize footage from a documentary she watches daily in homage to her father suggests she may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but it does prolong their detecting activities.
Though they do appear “borderline Siamese,” as their supposedly sensitive and earnest free clinic lawyer Henry (Lukas Haas) puts it, the girls do engage in a couple of solo adventures, Tanzie’s Julia Roberts impersonation (tight miniskirt, push-up bra) gets her into a TV station file office, but also, subsequently, in a jail cell, where she befriends the tough-looking prostitutes, who give her an idea—healthy, “natural cosmetics” should be available at the Rite-Aid, at “affordable prices. She also discovers she has a crush on Rick (Marcus Coloma), whom she believes is another valet parker (unlike the hip-hop boys, he always returned the car after parking it at the Marchetta Cosmetics campus).
For her part, because the girls must have similar plotlines, Ava finds love with Henry. This even though she’s averse to his cat (she calls it “vermin,” he calls it “Clarence Darrow”) and doesn’t understand why he’d want to help poor people to begin with, since being poor is “not a terrible disease or anything.” Reading her response as less than intelligent, Henry pronounces, “You’re all frosting and no cupcake.” But he’s a dutiful boy, and before long, retracts his assessment. She is, indeed, a “cupcake.”
Still, the most important lessons Tanzie and Ava even think about learning come from Inez. When the sisters worry about their losses, she commiserates, but only to a point, as Inez is in place to represent all hardworking immigrants in L.A. (she has two young daughters back home she wants to bring to the States). “What a tragedy,” she says when the girls complain about riding the city bus. “Right up there with the national debt.”
When Inez suggests they get jobs as maids, like her, the Marchettas are horrified. And so Inez settles for another dig they won’t get: “While I’m cleaning up after bulimics in Bel Air,” she says on her way out the door, “I would appreciate a little bit of help around here.” This “help” consists of Ava rolling her eyes and throwing out a pan she can’t get clean and Tanzie dancing around in a pair of Inez’s sensible work shoes, shocked to learn they are “so comfortable!”
At this point, you sigh. And you wish the camera had followed Inez out that door, so you might have seen her movie, and left behind the heiresses’ education and romance. Even if the Duff sisters are having fun.