Jennifer Merin reviews “Material Girls”

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MATERIAL MATTERS

No doubt pre-teens– especially girls aged seven to twelve– will find “Material Girls” an entertaining lesson in how to grow up. But for older and more sophisticated audiences, this film holds little edification, and very few surprises.

In a perfectly predictable plot, two appallingly spoiled teenage socialite sisters (Hilary Duff as Tanzie and Haley Duff as Ava) face the loss of their inheritance (the Marchetta Cosmetics Company, founded by their father) and status (their deceased dad is accused of a scandalous coverup regarding a skin-damaging product).

Almost instantaneously, the girls experience the self-shattering descent from being divas to becoming down-and-outs who’re no longer whisked by waiting wannabes at LA’s hottest clubs– and even if they were, couldn’t afford chic clothes to wear and a ritzy ride to get them there.

Actually, the desperation of their plight isn’t quite convincing– nor does it engender much sympathy. For one thing, it’s hard to believe any savvy businessman dad who loved his kids as much as Marchetta loved Tanzie and Ava would raise them to be such utter dodos– for example, they hand over their Mercedes keys to street thugs whom they take for valet parkers. Duh! Secondly, their life-changing hardships seem about as grave, relevant and challenging as those seen on Hilton-fueled reality TV– for example, that they must ride busses because they lost their Mercedes. Such suffering!

Okay, so in the end, the film can boast a positive message: the girls successfully grapple with restoring their dad’s reputation and reestablishing the company’s street cred (and profits), and in doing so, they discover they’re capable of defining their personal goals and realizing their dreams. They‘re happier, better people. But, that outcome’s perfectly predictable, too.

The Duffs’ performances are cute and charming– and suitingly surperficial. As Tommy, the girls’ father’s trusted former partner and their trustee, Brent Spinner delivers some amusing malapropisms amidst his character’s rather unremarkable smarminess.

One of the film’s best surprises is finding Angelica Huston, as gracious and truthful as ever, playing badass business bitch, Fabiella, who’s efforts to take over Marchettas’ company push the limits– and catapult the girls into growing up.

But the biggest surprise is that “Material Girls’” director is Martha Coolidge, acclaimed as one of America‘s foremost female filmmakers. Coolidge, whose early features include the still-popular “Valley Girls (1983), clearly outgrew the teen genre with “Rambling Rose“ (1991), an unadulteratedly grownup– and Oscar-nominated– film and went on to make the moving and memorable “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (1999). Finding Coolidge back on the teen track with this production is sad– perhaps even alarming– and leads one to wonder whether female filmmakers are yet again facing filmdom’s celluloid ceiling. Hope not. It would be great to see Coolidge make more movies that appeal to more mature audiences, too.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).