By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Amanda Bynes updates another classic—but why?
Just a guess here, but the majority of Amanda Bynes fans probably didn't get most of the Shakespeare references in her As You Like It-inspired She's the Man, so behold, this time she goes for something a bit more familiar with Sydney White. Originally titled Sydney White and the Seven Dorks—which would have been actually funny and therefore too risky for such a homogenized studio product—the movie takes the classic Snow White story and resets it at a modern university. You might expect a college comedy version of a fairy tale to be a bit risqué, a bit older-skewing, maybe tailored for the actual college crowd, but it's actually a more toned-down and kid-friendly version of the Grimms' tale than even Walt Disney's animated version.
Which isn't to say it's all bad. When you get to see enough of these types of movies, from John Tucker Must Die to whatever fresh cinematic hell Hilary Duff has managed to foist upon us this year, you become thankful for small mercies. Or, as our president might put it, you start to develop the soft bigotry of low expectations. Keep this in mind as we proceed. Bynes is an appealing screen presence—it's been a while since we've seen an actress with a similarly effective tomboy-cutie shtick—but she tends to choose crappy projects. It's telling—and sad—that her most entertaining movie to date was Big Fat Liar.
At any rate, she's arguably the most macho Snow White ever as Sydney, a plumber's daughter who works on construction sites prior to packing up for college, where she intends to join the sorority her late mother loved so much. But the sorority is run by Rachel Witchburn (Aquamarine's Sara Paxton), and just in case you miss the significance of her surname, we get two separate close-ups of the nameplate on her parking space.
Unfortunately, this film doesn't have the cojones to take the fairy tale all the way and have Rachel marry Sydney's dad, which might be a little disturbing, but at least it would add some decent character conflict currently lacking (while we're at it, actual dwarfs would have made a good addition, too). Instead, Rachel and Sydney vie for the heart of the same fratboy, Tyler (Matt Long, the young Nic Cage in Ghost Rider). This is a story so determined to be inoffensive that, while it mocks the shallowness of the Greek system, it posits the notion of a fraternity guy as the ideal for even a liberated woman. Although, he's that rare breed of jock who volunteers at a soup kitchen for the cleanest homeless people you've ever seen in your life. And he's good at video games, which is still a mildly nerdy activity.
And then there are the seven dorks, who live in a falling-apart, incongruously fairy-tale-styled house in the middle of fraternity row called the Vortex. This is a house that looks like a pristine set with some conveniently draped fake cobwebs, in keeping with the fact that every costume and set in sight looks like it came from a generic prop house, where bright clothes no one ever wears go to to die.
All that said, director Joe Nussbaum knows his dorkdom and nails it—you'd expect no less from a man who made his name with the Star Wars-in-joke-laden short George Lucas in Love. These are not, as you might expect, handsome actors playing nerds merely by wearing glasses, but awkward, sometimes obnoxious geeks, some of whom look downright weird—Jeremy Howard, for one, looks like Tom Green's mildly deformed younger brother and is best known for playing aliens. If they're meant to represent specific Disney dwarfs, it's not entirely clear; while exchange student Embele (Donte Bonner) is clearly Sleepy, and allergy-ridden Lenny (Jack Carpenter) is probably Sneezy, beyond that, it's anybody's guess.
Nussbaum clearly endeared himself to George Lucas with his famous short, and here, he uses the connection to dress the Vortex set with full-size Darth Vader and Greedo replicas, not to mention a rare "Return of the Jedi Power of the Force Luke Skywalker in Combat Poncho" action figure. Trust me, the nomenclature is correct, which is why it's so baffling that it can be so wrong in one other key scene: Witchburn's "magic mirror" is a computer monitor, which, we're told, is set to "the school's HotOrNot ranking on MySpace." Were there no fact-checkers involved with this? HotOrNot.com and MySpace are two different sites, people, and the one Witchburn stares at looks like neither.
So what's good here? The occasional smart moments that briefly pop up like whack-a-moles to indicate that just maybe there was once a pretty-smart screenplay here before it was most likely tested to death—the way writer Chad Creasey works in the "poison apple" and "hi-ho" references are quite clever. But most of those involved seem better than this. Bynes could stand to stretch a bit by maybe doing a faithful literary adaptation next time, and Nussbaum should try sci-fi, since he obviously knows it well.
SYDNEY WHITE WAS DIRECTED BY JOE NUSSBAUM AND WRITTEN BY CHAD CREASEY. COUNTYWIDE.