I confess a fascination -- perhaps unhealthy by definition -- with the actress/singer/empire Hilary Duff
. She's in no way a better actress than, say, Lindsay Lohan
and her career doesn't have the occasional bursts of quality that dot Lohan's resume. But Duff has a puppy-ish goofiness and, more to the point, bold-outlined limitations on her acting abilities, that render her weirdly endearing. Most of her post-Disney
movies have failed even as cheesy guilty pleasures, but I keep Netflixing those DVDs anyway, hoping for the best.
That kind of relativism -- hoping for the best possible Hilary Duff movie -- is what got me to see Material Girls in a theater (it wasn't screened for critics). It's a Duff movie through and through: Hilary's mom produced it, and her sister Haylie
gets second billing. (Casting her less famous real-life sister as her movie sidekick is sweetly misguided, and therefore vintage Duff.) Hil-Hil and Hay-Hay play Tanzie and Ava Marchetta, spoiled heiresses whose cosmetics empire is threatened, landing them in the poorhouse. The opportunity for cheap culture-clash humor (see entitled rich girls adjust to poverty!) and cheap shots at Paris and Nicky Hilton (or even a fictional rehash of The Simple Life), combined with the participation of director Martha Coolidge
(an expert in blonde bubbliness by virtue of having made Valley Girl years ago) makes Material Girls a candidate for a teenybopping good time. The peculiar, slapdash movie they made instead nonetheless eclipses most of the star's previous pre-teen pictures, because it finally drives a Duff vehicle into the land of beguilingly awful. Article continues below
It doesn't stay there for all 90 minutes; Material Girls has some of the tedium of Duff's other movies, only less polished. The light gloss of a Raise Your Voice or a Perfect Man is jettisoned just when it's needed most: the Marchettas are supposed to be living in luxury, but their surroundings look like budget planning from the start. It's obvious that much expense were spared in creating the posh parties, lavish mansions, and a supposedly upscale cosmetics factory, none of which look all that different from the dumpy apartment, free law clinic, and bus stops that are supposed to create humorous contrast once the sisters hit the skids.
But like Hilary's clipped, chipper klutziness and Haylie's generic hanger-on bitchiness, the budgetary limitations aren't an inherent fault. More puzzling is the movie's decision to eschew obvious gags and slapstick in favor of following the Marchettas' attempts to clear their company's name, sullied by reports of its products' skin-annihilating side effects. In most circumstances, movies that avoid easy laughs should be commended; here, the Duff sisters appear to be looking a gift horse in the mouth and possibly disappearing down its throat.
There are peripheral laughs. Some are intentional: Hilary being mistaken for a prostitute while imitating Erin Brockovich is perversely funny (as are a few throwaway details like a cheesy soap called Long Island where a character attempts suicide by taking "three months' worth of birth control pills"). Others are less so, as when the film upholds the fine Duff film tradition of testing the audience's resolve to suspend disbelief by insisting that Hilary's character has some kind of additional, prodigious talent such as singing, blogging, or in this case, advanced chemistry (I can only thank the screenwriters for making her college of choice UCLA rather than Stanford).
This is indicative of the film's larger problem: its outright refusal to make the Marchetta sisters as bitchy and shallow as an actual comedy would require. Haylie showed a talent for unearned arrogance in Napoleon Dynamite, and while she gets to play the more deluded, less ambitious sister, the movie insists on humanizing both characters too fast and too often. Coolidge doesn't realize that the sheer uselessness of the Duff sisters is their humanity -- and that trying to convince us that they're smart and resourceful, Legally Blonde style, is kind of insulting.
Still, it's an amusing kind of insulting, and Material Girls takes on a low-rent, late-night cable appeal that Duff's other films only flirt with. The motley roundup of a supporting cast helps; Anjelica Huston
is in this thing as a rival cosmetics queen, amusing in a role that asks for little and thanks her for less. Brent Spiner
, unrecognizable from his Data days as the girls' surrogate father and CEO, isn't nearly so lucky. Lukas Haas
is hilarious as Haylie's love interest, because of his obvious confusion about what the hell he's doing here. Material Girls may squander its ability to work as a legitimate comedy or even a cute movie for kids (it's too -- yes -- plotty for the latter), but it achieves a far rarer feat: It's a comedy so bad it's actually kind of funny.