Now is the winter of our disconnect, when the moviegoing choices are either big-ticket releases missed over the holidays, foreign-language films recommended by friends who live in bigger movie towns, or lobbed commercial snowballs like Chasing Liberty, made to splat quickly before next week’s volley of post-New Year’s mush.
How wet is this meltable young-adult light romance, which stars Mandy Moore as the cutest fictional daughter of a sitting U.S. president we’re likely to see until Katie Holmes takes up the position with ”First Daughter” later in the year? So wet that Moore’s Anna Foster, the Chelsea Clinton-inspired only child of a photogenic President (Mark Harmon), is introduced doing that thing that all teenage girls do in movies that are too lazy to figure out what teenage girls actually do: dancing around her bedroom in innocent imitation of provocative rock-star poses and applying lip gloss.
The twist, of course, is that Anna’s girlie bedroom is in the White House. Anna is protected by Secret Service agents at all times. (In the premise-setting opening scene, a nice young fellow with the wherewithal to ask her out is quickly defeated by the weirdness of dating under surveillance.) And so, frustrated by her lack of independence, Anna makes a break for it while on a European diplomatic tour with her family. With the help of Ben Calder (Matthew Goode), a cute English guy with a Vespa she meets on the street, she shimmies into an innocent imitation of provocative rock-star clothing, shakes off her security detail, and hits the road. From Prague to Venice to Berlin — it’s an American girl’s own ”Roman Holiday,” with pop star Moore as Audrey Hepburn, sort of, with lip gloss, and British stage actor Goode as Gregory Peck, sort of, with a backpack!
I’ll get to the substantial charms of Mr. Goode in a minute, passing by the insubstantial, ethnic-romantic-screwball subplot between Jeremy Piven and Annabella Sciorra as unusually bumbling Secret Service agents assigned to Anna’s protection. (”Liberty” is the First Daughter’s code name, just as ”whatever” is the movie’s genre category.) But can we pause for a minute here and talk about lip acting and its place in girl movies? Lip acting is what happens when an actress of slender dramatic means — Moore, say — chews her kisser to denote demure hesitation, or sincere thought, or shy romantic interest. Lip acting is the telegraphing and stylizing of intention so that the one doing the lip gnaw can simulate anxiety, sexuality, or anger without actually owning the grown-up feelings. (Sometimes this is enhanced by sweater acting, which involves the tugging of overlong sleeves.) Well, Moore goes into lip overtime in a tortured scene in which Anna, who has not told Ben her identity, tries to seduce him and he — a gentleman who, for that matter, has not exactly told her his story — chivalrously averts his eyes, all so that Anna can announce, ”Naked virgin, safely in bed.” I’m just saying. (The naked-virgin script is by newcomers Derek Guiley and David Schneiderman, directed by former ”Home Improvement” producer-director Andy Cadiff.)
At least some Goode may come from ”Chasing Liberty”: I hope we’ll be seeing more of the handsome and unboyish young man with big star potential who looks ready to take on more, not Moore. In a drippy story about a girl who needs more protecting than she knows, this discovery, with his charm from the Hugh Grant school and substance à la Ben Chaplin, breaks from the motorcade and emerges as a viable candidate for freedom from staged photo ops like this one.