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Dustin Putman

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First Daughter (2004)
1 Stars

Directed by Forest Whitaker
Cast: Katie Holmes, Marc Blucas, Michael Keaton, Amerie, Margaret Colin, Lela Rochon Fuqua, Michael Milhoan, Dwayne Adway, Hollis Hill, Ken Moreno, Andrew Caple-Shaw, Jay Leno, Vera Wang, Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers; narrated by Forest Whitaker
2004 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild language, sexual situations, and alcohol-related material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 22, 2004.

In my January 2004 review of "Chasing Liberty," the first romance of the year about the teenage daughter of the President of the United States, I criticized the film as being a cookie-cutter affair—dreary, listless, and with precious few sparks between leads Mandy Moore and Matthew Goode. The review concluded this way: "Let's hope the upcoming 'First Daughter' isn't this generic." For a while, all signs pointed that this would be the case, with director Forest Whitaker (1998's "Hope Floats") touting his picture as being the more prestigious and realistic of the two.

Nine months later, "First Daughter" has finally reached the screen, and the outcome is a combustible one. In fact, "Chasing Liberty," as fluffy and forgettable as it may be, is the superior film of the two, and "First Daughter" is every bit as generic. No matter which screenplay was written first, "First Daughter" has the misfortune of being released second, and its strikingly familiar storyline, at times a blow-by-blow carbon copy of "Chasing Liberty," makes it seem like a tired rip-off. At least the earlier movie featured some pretty on-location European scenery to look at; this one can't even withstand that limited scrutiny.

With her father (Michael Keaton) the U.S. President, 18-year-old Samantha Mackenzie (Katie Holmes) has been forced to grow up in the public eye. When she is allowed to go off to college at California's Redmond University, however, Samantha sees it as her first step toward freedom and adulthood, wishful thinking that is quickly squashed by the Secret Service agents who must follow her around night and day. With other classmates viewing her as a celebrity rather than a person, Samantha feels blessed to meet and start to fall in love with James Lansome (Marc Blucas), a handsome student who sees her for who she is rather than who the public perceives her to be. What she doesn't yet know is that James is a Secret Service agent himself, sent to befriend her and make her feel comfortable in her new setting.

The similarities between "Chasing Liberty" and "First Daughter" are astonishing, from the superficial (both deal with the President's daughter seeking freedom) to the specific (both romances are hit with a blow when the guy turns out to be an undercover agent), but that is really the least of this film's problems. A sappy, consistently dull confection, "First Daughter" is substandard romantic hokum that has not one creative bone in its body, nor one noteworthy scene in its whole 105 minutes. Screenwriters Jessica Bendinger (2002's "The Truth About Charlie") and Kate Kondell (2003's "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde") halfheartedly strive to find the reality in its premise of a President's daughter going away to school, but they and director Forest Whitaker make the fatal mistake of featuring a wraparound narration in the form of a "Princess Diaries"-style fairy tale. They also fail to say anything of interest about its subject matter; the one subplot with potential—that of Samantha's loneliness in leading her unconventional, unavoidably public life—is thrown to the wayside in favor of a derivative, charisma-free romance.

Tragically, Katie Holmes (2003's "Pieces of April"), a wonderful young actress known for making usually smart career choices, is left stranded with nothing of consequence to say or do as Samantha Mackenzie. She is forced to act too cute by a half in the first act—her kissy scenes with on-screen father Michael Keaton are downright creepy at times—and then makes a valiant effort to bring pathos to the second hour, at odds with the one-note writing she has been given. Marc Blucas (2001's "Summer Catch") is a bore as love interest James, his one distinguishing trait being that he is too old for the part.

Romantic magnetism fails Holmes and Blucas, who mostly just sit around reciting flat dialogue while supposedly falling in love. One tacky cliche of a scene between them even takes place on a small boat with Samantha holding a parasol while claiming how normal she really is. None of it is to be believed for a second, and so the viewer places no rooting stakes on their relationship. Perhaps the filmmakers should have taken a good, long look at last spring's incendiary "The Girl Next Door" to see how a truly affectionate romance between young adults can be done on film with passion and urgency.

For the most part, "First Daughter" avoids politicism, although the way in which Samantha is forced to drop out of school late in the picture to support her dad's reelection campaign is spiteful, making her parents look like self-involved snobs who don't care about their daughter's own future. Meanwhile, the scenes set in front of the White House (clearly filmed in front of a blue screen and nowhere near DC) are ludicrously phony-looking, giving the proceedings a bargain-basement feel. The mess of a finished product, with other subplots like Samantha's roommate's (Amerie) torn feelings of jealousy and kinship toward her new friend coming and going with zero rhyme or reason, comes as an ironic respite to director Forest Whitaker's false claim that his picture is a step above "Chasing Liberty." It is a step down, if anything. "First Daughter" is charmless and confoundingly amateurish, a trifle of bankrupt non-ideas that will be forgotten about long before the November election even gets here.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman