Warner Bros. // 2004 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // May 4th, 2004
Every family has a rebel. Even the First Family.
A new genre seems to have gained a great deal of popularity within the past year: the American Girl / European Setting / Mistaken Identity Teen Comedy, as seen in What a Girl Wants, The Lizzie McGuire Movie, The Prince and Me, and now Chasing Liberty. When you additionally factor in that this same material has been mined in the Will Friedle Disney Channel staple My Date With the President's Daughter and the forthcoming Katie Holmes vehicle First Daughter, it becomes clear that story is not the draw here. What (potentially) distinguishes Chasing Liberty from its cinematic kin is the enormously likeable presence of pop star-turned-actress Mandy Moore.
Anna Scott (Mandy Moore, How to Deal, All I Want) has grown tired of her father's overly protective ways. She can hardly leave the house without being followed by a half-dozen men tracking her every move. It's understandable -- after all, her father is the President of the United States (Mark Harmon, Summer School, Freaky Friday). While visiting Europe on official business, Anna manages to escape the Secret Service with the intention of having one night of freedom, away from the pressures and limitations that come with belonging to the First Family. In the course of the escape, she meets Ben (newcomer Matthew Goode, in a completely inauspicious debut), a young Brit with a secret of his own. Together, they travel across Europe over the course of one night -- all the while trying to avoid the Secret Service, the adoring public, and their growing attraction to one another.
Someday, the right film and the right role will come along, and we will be able to pinpoint the moment at which Mandy Moore becomes a movie star. It happened with Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and Kate Hudson in Almost Famous. It nearly happened with Minnie Driver in Circle of Friends and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, though neither of them was ever really able to parlay those opportunities into careers of distinguished longevity. It hasn't yet happened to Mandy Moore -- primarily because of the kinds of roles she has chosen to play thus far -- but it will.
Which isn't to say Moore has been playing it safe. Even in the days when she was being touted as a teen-pop princess (which never really took), she was playing the villain in The Princess Diaries -- I'd like to see Hilary Duff shake up her image like that. Moore has continued to take some less-than-flattering roles in slightly edgier fare (with the emphasis on "slightly") like How to Deal and All I Want; her performance in the latter is one of the best examples of the self absorbed-yet-deceptively-appealing young actress I've seen in film. That girl exists, and Moore nailed it. Of course, I'm omitting the film that brought Mandy Moore "the actress" to the public's attention -- her Ali McGraw-inspired turn in A Walk to Remember. That's not a film I cared much for, and yet I do remember being struck by the sincerity with which Mandy Moore played her role -- it was the only thing that kept the film from totally collapsing under the weight of its own good intentions.
I have mixed feelings about Moore's work in Chasing Liberty. She's effortlessly appealing, to be sure, but the film represents a step backward for her. It's her first film in which acting takes a back seat to star appeal, and so it requires little more of her than smiling and looking pretty. I recognize, on the other hand, that someday it will be a film a lot like Chasing Liberty that launches her to stardom; while waiting for the right one to come along, I suppose we'll have to sit through some of the wrong ones.
Chasing Liberty plays like a teenybopper version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. It takes a similar premise -- two young people aimlessly wandering Europe over the course of a night -- but strips it of any emotional or intellectual maturity. Sunrise's characters ruminated on the nature of life and death; Anna and Ben bungee jump. Sunrise's characters met by chance, falling in love as two strangers in the night; Liberty's characters are thrown together by the machinations of the plot and fall in love accordingly. Chasing Liberty doesn't have the romantic spirit of the Linklater film, nor does it have that film's confidence. Rather than be content to have its two main characters converse and learn from one another, Liberty continues to place them in one goofy situation after the next. And, as an insurance policy in the event that the two leads aren't interesting enough to carry the film, they are forever running in to colorful European characters -- the thrill-seeking German kleptomaniac, the overbearing Italian gondola driver, and so on. Perhaps the filmmakers believed that if the movie could just stay busy enough, no one would notice that there's not much going on.
The movie does manage to distinguish itself from other films of its ilk by appealing to a slightly older demographic -- say, 16 or 17 versus 12 to 14 (which seems to be the age group a lot of these films are targeted toward). There is some frank talk regarding sexuality, as the First Daughter is vocally desperate to lose her virginity (she even participates in some offscreen lovin'). While I may not be a leading advocate of teen sex (at least, not since I was in my teens), it's nice to see a film that deals with the topic somewhat directly but isn't specifically about sex (like American Pie -- still a fine, but altogether different, film). That Anna tries to get Ben to sleep with her is totally believable, as is her tantrum when he refuses; it isn't so much about sex as it is about getting her way. Unfortunately, the film wants us to believe that she wanted it because she's fallen in love with him, and this is too much to swallow. It's as though the film is in conflict with itself, forcing the characters in directions they shouldn't be going. Chasing Liberty's elements of originality are uncomfortably crammed into a formulaic box.
This is director Andy Cadiff's first feature film (he previously worked solely in television), and it shows in the film's vanilla blandness. Despite some enthusiastic performances and some pretty scenery, nothing is staged in a way that's very interesting. The proceedings feel by-the-numbers, as though Cadiff simply needed his actors to get from Point A to Point B to Point C, and felt that the fact that they arrived at each point would somehow make the movie a success. Most good films -- at least the films that are good to me -- are the ones that understand the importance of the journey, not the destination (please don't trip over my clichés).
Warner Bros. does a good job with the disc, loading it with more extras than the film's teenage fans probably care about, but enough to keep DVD fans happy -- unusual, since that group won't necessarily seek this disc out (oh, sweet irony!). The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, using the widescreen format to try and capitalize on its European scenery to some success. The transfer feels a bit soft, but that's most likely because the photography is soft -- everything is shot through several filters, and Mandy Moore gets so much backlight and toplight that at times she begins to look comedically angelic. The 5.1 audio track services the film nicely, though some of the songs for the too-numerous musical montages are a bit forceful at times (and while we're on the subject, why would any self-respecting music supervisor continue to use Tom Petty's American Girl in the post-Fast Times at Ridgemont High / Silence of the Lambs world?).
The commentary, by stars Mandy Moore and Matthew Goode, is relentlessly dull. It becomes painfully apparent within the first few minutes that the talk won't have much value -- not only are there long gaps in the conversation (not a good sign this early on), but when the participants do speak, it's to read the onscreen credits aloud. They don't necessarily give any background or other information about the crew members mentioned, they just say their names; while this may serve a vital function for the visually impaired, it doesn't do much for the rest of us. Moore and Goode generally just comment on what's happening on screen, occasionally giving tiny details like, "This was a fun scene," or "It was really hot this day." Astute observations to be sure, but ultimately leading to a track of extremely limited interest.
Also included is a gag reel, consisting of outtakes of Jeremy Piven (he of the ever-changing hairline) improvising. There are a couple of cute but disposable deleted and extended scenes, mostly involving Mark Harmon; the full-length concert footage from the band The Roots (a transparent grasp at hipness on the part of the filmmakers); and a Passport to Europe featurette narrated by Moore (apparently, Europe is "so awesome"), which highlights the film's locales. The theatrical trailer is also included, as well as a trailer for Love Don't Cost a Thing that pops up automatically -- demonstrating that Warner Bros. has jumped on that annoying bandwagon.
Though it's not an awful film, I can't exactly recommend a comedy in which I only laughed once (..."...Now I'll never make it to third base. I'm sorry...I mean second.") Chasing Liberty's target audience may enjoy the film, though that's admittedly a pretty small window. It may serve as a good transition between standard Disney Channel fare and more mature cinema...you know, like Crossroads.
Suffice it to say that I was extremely relieved when I learned that "Liberty" is not, in fact, the name of the Mandy Moore character (it's the code word used for her by the Secret Service). I have a low tolerance for double entendre in film titles.
The only participant found Not Guilty is Mandy Moore, who is free to pursue bigger and better things. All other involved parties are charged with a misdemeanor and are sentenced to five consecutive viewings of Wesley Snipes's Murder at 1600.
Review content copyright © 2004 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary Featuring Actors Mandy Moore and Matthew Goode
* Featurette: Passport to Europe
* Additional Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Concert Performance by The Roots
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailer
* Official Site