The Wince and Me

This Roman Holiday redux sacrifices itself for a happy ending

She's a premed farm girl intent on administering to the world's suffering children. He's a car-racing Danish prince looking to shed the burdens of royal duty. They're both in America's heartland, where they share a chem lab, an employer, and a penchant for driving fast. What, pray tell, is going to happen?

Yes, it's a high-concept romantic comedy, and more than a little derivative (Roman Holiday, of course); nobody would blame you for fearing the worst. What's amazing about The Prince & Me is that, for at least the first hour, it is actually a good movie -- funny, endearing, even a little smart. It's only after the prince woos his overachieving princess, and the couple faces a perennial real-life dilemma (Danish monarchy or Doctors Without Borders?), that things rapidly plunge into dreck.

Paige Morgan (Julia Stiles) is a wholesome Wisconsin college student whose world map is pinned with the poverty-stricken places where she aspires to bring medical care. Her friends adore her, but they roll their eyes at the singularity of her vision -- i.e., career at the expense of love. When the dashing figure of upper-class Danish playboyishness that is "Eddie" (Luke Mably) appears and reappears in her life (indeed, he stalks her), she's largely unmoved. Not only does she not want a boyfriend, but this pretentious piece of Eurotrash is presumptuous and, in chem lab as at the restaurant where she works, less than helpful. As is the movie heroine's way, she humbles him with rejection; in turn he submits himself to the process of earning her love.

Of course we know what she doesn't: that "Eddie" is actually Prince Edward of Denmark, weary of hometown media scrutiny and parental pressure, on a quest for topless coeds in the Cheesehead State. This is not the first time that the Prince of Denmark has emerged from the palace to publicly air his grief and woe; 400 years ago, the young royal was fretting his pretty little head about the English stage, worrying over how to kill his usurper uncle.

This time the great Dane's problems are not quite as grave, and the movie makes the predictable (but enjoyable) joke out of the connection. When Paige has trouble in her Shakespeare class, it's Eddie who tutors her in the power of the Bard. Of Hamlet, Paige has heard that he's an irresponsible cad; Eddie defends the prince's struggle between passion and duty with an edge of anguish in his voice. The conceit is obvious, but the actors play it up, and the scene's lowbrow/highbrow giddiness (in a laundromat, no less) is charming.

Still better are the portrayals of Paige's family, an amiable collection of rounded characters who run an organic dairy; and Eddie's valet Soren (Ben Miller, also a producer), a hilariously wry attendant whose wisdom far surpasses that of the young man he serves. Despite pronouncing the Wisconsin campus "the breeding grounds for the coronary bypass patients of the world," Soren whips up eggs Benedict on a hot plate in the dorm room; after that, he irons Eddie's boxers with the brisk, uncomplaining efficiency of someone resigned to his task.

So far, so good. The leads are attractive; the jokes land; and rural Wisconsin treats us to what may be the most exciting lawnmower race in cinema history. But after Paige and Eddie fall in love, and Eddie -- surprise! -- is called back to assume his duties in Denmark, the movie topples over itself in an attempt to play out the conflict. Can Denmark accept a commoner as a royal partner? Can Paige align herself with the rigidity of royal decorum? How long before she awakens to the neglect of her long-held career dreams? And will the queen (a chilly Miranda Richardson) chop off anyone's head? Factor in a royal illness, the total reform of the prince, some idolatrous worship of the crown jewels, and a heavily freighted butterfly symbol, and it's just too much. The plot falls into a messy heap, far too ambitious for the form, and the movie resorts to a whirlwind summary of (supposedly) emotionally loaded events. Yuck. Didn't anybody (I vote for Soren the valet) notice that things had become distasteful?

Also it's hard to love Julia Stiles. Adorable though she may be (verdict for this movie: excellent hair, overly sculpted eyebrows), she is somehow muted, as though she were holding something back. It can't be a coincidence that she is here again cast as a hard-driving, overconscientious student who needs to learn exactly the lessons that aren't taught in the books she treasures. Hollywood is forever rewarding the departure from anxiety-ridden ambition, at least in women, and Stiles's characters tend to reap those rewards in spades. (That is, they get the guy and the career, or the integrity, or the whatever.) Inevitably these roles require Stiles to travel the arc from uptight to unleashed, always a fun release to witness. But, at least for this reviewer, she never quite nails the transformation.

Then there's the annoying stereotype of the playboy attracted to the one woman who won't have him -- the same girl who later reforms him with the simplicity of her virtue. Apparently it takes a woman to better a man; he just can't be held responsible for doing that himself. Meanwhile the movie never seems to clue in that a womanizer is not easily transformed; Paige may be his first actual girlfriend, but she doesn't question Eddie's integrity when he promises her a lifetime of commitment.

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