`Liberty' is an unlikely story that always works


January 09, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Expand Roman Holiday to include all of Europe and you have Chasing Liberty, starring Mandy Moore as a first daughter who yearns for the freedom her parents' status won't allow.

The formula is ancient - a member of the ruling nobility wants to live as the common folk do - and it's been a winner for everyone from Mark Twain to Audrey Hepburn. Not surprisingly, it works here, too, at least most of the time.

The movie's biggest failing may be its effort to make the heroine everything to everybody; she comes across as both perfect and fallible, a combination that, beyond being logically impossible, puts unfair demands on the actor. But the more serious problem is not exactly the movie's fault - namely, we may not live in a world where such a common-folk fancy is possible anymore, let alone safe or even smart.

Anna Foster (Moore) is 18, and her father is president of the United States. That would make serious demands of anyone, and as the movie opens, Anna seems to be handling the pressure fine: Approached by an autograph seeker while on a date in a fancy restaurant, she's gracious, endearing and unfailingly polite, a charmer of the first order.

But that's not what this movie is about, so things must quickly get complicated. When one of her date's pals innocently but unwisely reaches inside his jacket, the Secret Service swarms all over him and everyone else within a hundred feet, leaving Anna both embarrassed and enraged.

Daddy, she starts complaining, why can't I be like all the other girls?

That's a good question, one dad (Mark Harmon) never really answers. Instead, he simply pulls the reins ever tighter, insisting Anna live in a bubble-wrapped world that grates against her every teen-age nerve.

Then, on a European trip, Anna gets her chance, exploiting a rare crack in her dad's over-protective facade that takes her first to a bar and then onto a motorcycle driven by requisite Brit hunk Ben Calder (Matthew Goode). Finding both freedom and her new traveling companion irresistible, Anna embarks on a European tour that takes her to some of the continent's most beautiful cities (including Prague and Venice) always one step ahead of the Secret Service agents charged with tracking her down.

Chasing Liberty is, at its core, a star vehicle for Moore, and she doesn't let anyone down; whether pouting or smiling, exulting in her freedom or chafing under her restrictions, she never seems less than genuine. As an actress of appreciable range and winsome screen presence, she's the real thing.

Little thought has been given to the characters surrounding her, though, and they suffer accordingly. All Goode is asked to do is display his accent and his pecs, both of which are up to the challenge. While the movie strives to establish an endearing relationship between Anna and her dad (they even play Scrabble, at which she's much better), all Harmon is asked to do is look befuddled or frustrated.

As Secret Service agents incrementally falling for each other, Jeremy Piven and Anabella Sciorra seem utterly out of place; they may be the first pair of presidential protectors to whom the word "breezy" could be applied. Still, while Piven overdoes the wiseacre stuff, Sciorra is sexy and displays a comic touch little of her previous work suggests.

Unfortunately, Chasing Liberty's idea that a president's daughter could be missing for days on end, traveling around Europe unrecognized, is ludicrous. And the reality that her little adventure endangers not only her life, but dozens of others, is never broached.

Granted, Chasing Liberty is lighthearted fluff, not piercing drama. Still, a little shot of reality - or at least an acknowledgement of same - could have done this film wonders. It's hard to concentrate on how wonderful Moore is when one's head is constantly shaking at the incongruity of what's up there on the screen.

Chasing Liberty

Starring Mandy Moore, Matthew Goode, Mark Harmon

Directed by Andy Cadiff

Rated PG-13 (sexual content, brief nudity)

Released by Warner Bros.

Time 120 minutes

SUN SCORE * * 1/2

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