REVIEW: Leighton Meester Hits the Charm Jackpot in Monte Carlo
Paris's transformative powers have been well documented on screen: Audrey Hepburn took the Gallic cure to become a woman (or at least become alluring to men) in Sabrina; in the recent Midnight in Paris Owen Wilson rides a Studebaker back to the halcyon Paris of the 1920s. The young, small-town Texas women who star in Monte Carlo have the kind of grandiose but vaguely defined idea of the city that could only come from the movies. "Something big is about to happen for me," says Emma (Katie Cassidy), a waitress whose modeling dreams were frozen in the amber of a Clip 'N Save cover. Her co-worker Grace (Selena Gomez) has similarly overblown expectations for their week in France -- something about re-inventing herself after four years of blending into the gym walls of her high school. No one has told them that the perfect pair of espadrilles can only do so much.
Helpfully, there is a third wheel, a buzzkill named Meg (Leighton Meester) along to steady the girls and deflate their dreams. Meg is Grace's stepsister and Emma's former classmate; she's also the film's best shot at a fully realized character. Meester's sweet and sour charisma is well deployed as a young woman who has lost her mother (her father, played by Brett Cullen, has married Grace's mother, played by Andie MacDowell) and has built up a resistance to much of what the world has to offer, including and especially Emma's bad taste, birthday cake, and basic human bonding. No one is happy about her last-minute, parent-enforced inclusion in the trip Grace and Emma have been planning, and their disappointing acquaintance with Paris -- including a perfectly dank pensione and a fast-tracking tour -- compounds the discord.
In fact the scenes in Paris are among the funniest and most inventive in a film that begins to unravel when the plotty princess mechanisms kick in. A speedwalk through the Louvre, a speed-eat in a tourist trap, and a race down the stairs of the Eiffel Tower to catch that much-loathed tour bus are a witty retort to the city's heavily packaged charms. The trio is just developing a rapport when the least vivid among them -- that would be Grace -- is mistaken for a British socialite and whisked, along with her coterie, into a posh hotel suite. To those unfamiliar with her popularity among the Silly Bandz set, Gomez seems an unlikely choice for the lead. Grace feels underwritten and ill defined (the script was co-written by director Thomas Bezucha and based on a novel by Jules Bass), but the bigger problem is that Gomez doesn't really register on the big screen. Her scrunchy-puss cuteness is a poor match for a role that relies so heavily on personality (though her broader turn as alter ego Cordelia has exquisitely bitchy moments), and especially in terms of the innate vivaciousness of her co-stars, Grace is convincing mainly in being mistakable.
But then this is about clothes, jewels, and boys -- not characters -- and when the story moves to Monte Carlo, of all retro Xanadus, the pretenses are dropped along with a lot of high-end names. Grace pretends she is the errant Cordelia, supposedly out of obligation to the auction of a Bulgari monstrosity for Romanian schoolchildren (!), and is wooed by a French oligarch with a Menudo haircut. Emma's focus on material aspiration sends her into a luxurious tailspin, worrying her hometown boyfriend (played by Chris Klein -- I mean Cory Monteith) enough to catch a flight and find her. And Meg keeps bumping into a scorching Aussie (Luke Bracey) on a world tour; eventually she's inspired to cut a little loose and let go of her grief. Hers are by far the sweetest scenes. As in Country Strong, Meester's crack timing and irresistible poignancy illuminate a part that would leave other actresses simpering themselves off the screen.
Bezucha (The Family Stone) adds a little old-school zip to his direction, offsetting some perplexingly limp moments (Grace's awkward performance in a polo game is a widely missed opportunity) with a style happily reminiscent of European, headscarf capers of the past. (A clip from To Catch a Thief is wedged in for reference.) There are slapstick reveals, characters passing like convertibles in the Monte Carlo sun, and apples that function as plausible gags. Inevitably, much depends on the elevator. A bit at the end involving the French police and their squat, degage inspector (Bruno Abraham-Kremer) is a highlight, along with Michael Giacchino's swinging, big band score. All is ultimately and bizarrely forgiven, but the dialed-back happy endings are at least a gesture against total preposterousness. I left wondering if the theater full of sated little girls would begin plotting their own overseas transformations, and setting them in this city whose charms seem more willed than genuine.