Judge Patrick Bromley would like to give this sappy romcom about the President's daughter a 21-gun salute...with live ammunition.
The girl who always stood out is finally getting a chance to fit in.
First Daughter is the second of two President's daughter romantic comedies released in 2004, following the Mandy Moore vehicle Chasing Liberty. It's the Armageddon to Chasing Liberty's Deep Impact. The Red Planet to Liberty's Mission to Mars. The Volcano to its Dante's Peak. The…
Well, you get the idea.
Facts of the Case
Samantha Mackenzie (Katie Holmes, Pieces of April) wants to be like everyone else. She's heading off to college, eager to establish her own identity and hoping that she won't get any extra attention. Not likely, though, as she happens to be the daughter of President Mackenzie (Michael Keaton, Batman), living at the White House and constantly in the public eye. Once at college, she struggles to find the balance between fitting in with the regular folk, not standing out or embarrassing the President in an election year, and finding romance with a guy (Marc Blucas, Prey for Rock And Roll) who just might see who for who she is, not who her father is.
There is a moment early on in Forest Whitaker's innocuous fantasy, First Daughter, that suggests that there is a much more interesting movie buried within: Katie Holmes's Samantha character stands in front of a giant TV screen (I'm not sure why the giant screen is there, but that's not the point) as Joan and Melissa Rivers do their usual shrill Fashion Criticism-shtick, ripping apart the clothing and appearance of the President's daughter. Samantha recoils a bit, obviously stung, and keeps moving.
The scene made me think of Chelsea Clinton (who seems to have provided the inspiration for much of the story), who made such an easy media target back when Bill was President. It seemed like the entire country had no problem ripping apart her every move—she's ugly, she's homely, she's a mess—so much so that when she finally did get a "makeover," it became a national news story, with the country practically breathing a sigh of relief. Did anyone ever stop to consider that this girl had feelings? That she was just a teenager, forced to go through her most awkward years under the watchful scrutiny of the whole world? Or that she didn't ask to be in this position? She wasn't a Britney Spears or a J. Lo, who chooses the limelight—and with it, the repercussions—but rather was just a young girl, pushed into the attention when her father became the President?
Such questions are only occasionally addressed in First Daughter, which pretty much eschews any thoughtful examination of what it means to be a regular kid in the most irregular of circumstances, in favor of providing a silly fairy-tale romance that has little to do with the real world. Like Chasing Liberty, the movie is content to make the point that the President's daughter just wants to be "like everybody else" but can't—over and over again. Watching First Daughter is a bit like being hit repeatedly with a blunt object that happens to be made of Nerf—it doesn't cause any harm, but it feels kind of pointless and gets old after a while.
The script (from a story by Jerry O'Connell…Jerry O'Connell? The fat kid from Stand By Me? The guy from Joe's Apartment? And Tomcats? And Kangaroo Jack? That Jerry O'Connell?) spends its entire first half focusing on Samantha at college (again, most likely inspired by Chelsea's stints at Stanford and Yale), where it's at its "I-just-want-to-fit-in" worst, but can't be bothered to come up with realistic situations to be addressed. Everywhere Samantha goes, people play "Hail to the Chief." Okay. She goes to a frat party, where a boy is tackled by the Secret Service (who literally follow her everywhere—a plot device that is never really explored for comic potential) after producing a squirt gun that looks exactly like a real gun; disregarding the fact that those squirt guns are no longer made, what exactly would the kid find funny about running around a party with a realistic-looking handgun? Especially a party being attended by the President's daughter? There's a decent subplot involving Samantha's tenuous relationship with her sassy black roommate (played with considerable sass by Amerie Rogers), used to getting all of the attention and resentful of having to compete for it, but by now I'm so burned out on the character of the sassy black roommate that it was hard for me to feel anything but annoyed.
The second half of the film is marginally better, as Samantha is taken out of college to join her father's re-election campaign; there's a good scene between Samantha and her mother, played by Margaret Colin (Independence Day), in which the First Lady is very frank about where everybody's priorities need to be. I liked the way in which this movie, ostensibly a teen-movie romantic comedy-fantasy, sometimes allowed its characters to be smart about politics—especially in its second half, when the plot turns more towards the re-election of President Michael Keaton (though it does raise the question of just what the whole first half of the film was even there for).
Unfortunately, most of what works in these passages is undermined by the ongoing romance between Samantha and her R.A., James (Marc Blucas, just as stiff and inaccessible here as he is on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who is actually an undercover Secret Service agent—the exact same plot twist found in Chasing Liberty. I have to ask, though, why not just allow him to be a Secret Service agent from the start, and allow the relationship to develop in that capacity? I haven't seen that movie before. Sure, it's totally unprofessional and pretty unrealistic—there's little chance a Secret Service agent would become romantically involved with the First Daughter—but that's the road we know we're going down anyway, false start or not. The outcome's the same; why dress it up with gimmicky plot devices and forced deception?
At the center of the film is Katie Holmes, an actress who can be adorable and who can be lovely, but neither in large enough quantities to suggest that she's going to be a full-blown movie star (though Chasing Liberty was considerably more simple-minded, dopey, and shrill, the one advantage it had over this movie was the presence of a luminous Mandy Moore). Holmes's strength has never been her acting skill—she relies too heavily on quirky half-smiles and darting eyes—and, yet, she's managed to build an impressive resume for herself: Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys, Sam Raimi's The Gift, and Keith Gordon's The Singing Detective are all standouts. In those films, she was a smaller member of a large ensemble, taking roles that played to her strengths and being allowed to shine in ways that she fails to do in all of First Daughter. Maybe the material is simply too conventional for Holmes to be at her most quirkily efficient; her best work leans toward more indie-driven sensibilities. I like Katie Holmes, but I'm hoping that films like First Daughter are the exception in her career, not the rule.
The First Daughter DVD arrives courtesy of Fox, a studio that's still holding on to the somewhat outdated idea of releasing a two-sided disc, with the widescreen version appearing on one side and the full screen appearing on the other (most studios now just release two separate versions of the film). For the purposes of this review, I watched only the 1.85:1 widescreen version, which has been enhanced for 16 x 9 playback. The image looks bright and clean, with colors that hold up nicely and only some minor edge enhancement visible at times. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track sticks mostly to the front and center channels, but delivers the dialogue clearly and efficiently and balances it out with Michael Kamen's too-syrupy score. A handful of extras make up the disc's bonus features: some deleted scenes (in a film where what was kept in isn't terribly interesting, do we really want to see what didn't make it?); a choreography featurette (skip it); a commentary by stars Holmes, Blucas, and Rogers (fun in parts, but without much value); and a tribute to composer Michael Kamen, who scored close to 100 films and can't be too happy that First Daughter is his swan song.
What baffles me most about First Daughter is its forced fantasy quality—it's structured and stylized like a fairy tale. A fairy tale for whom? Young girls who hope to someday find love? Or young girls who hope to someday be the daughter of the Leader of the Free World? The two ideas never connect—no one can relate enough to the latter to make the former work. I'm not sure the movie ever stood a chance of being anything more than fluff.
In four more years, Samantha Mackenzie will be out of the limelight, free to be forgotten. I'm not sure it will take us even half that time to forget First Daughter.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Actors Katie Holmes, Marc Blucas, and Amerie Rogers
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