Sometimes it helps not to know too much about a production before reviewing it. Take, for example, Tom Bezucha’s Monte Carlo, which tells of three wholesome Texan girls taking their first trip to Paris (yeah, I know). The project started as an adaptation of Jules Bass’ Headhunters, about four middle-aged Jersey women posing as wealthy socialites in Monaco, but turned into a tween fairy tale sometime between the second and third rewrite. While I’m relieved the filmmakers didn’t have their young cast trolling for rich husbands and hooking up with gigolos, I can’t help but wonder what might have been if Nicole Kidman had starred as originally intended.
This is not to say her replacement, Selena Gomez, does a bad job. As Grace, the rising star spends perhaps a few too many scenes pouting, but she wisely emphasises empathy instead of vulnerability, giving the young protagonist an altruistic edge. Besides, I blame the multiple rewrites for Grace coming off so whiny in the first act, reacting to every bit of adversity like a defeated forty-year-old, even though she just graduated high school. For crying out loud, the girl will have other trips!
Gomez struggles a bit more with the role of Cordelia, a snotty heiress whom Grace ends up impersonating. The actress spends perhaps a few too many scenes scowling, but she wisely grounds the character instead of playing her as a farce, giving us a reprieve from the obnoxious shrieks and squeals on which teen starlets so often rely. Her performance, while a bit tame, proves subtle enough that I forgot I was watching the same person even as Grace and Cordelia shared the screen.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. The first half hour sets up the dynamic between Grace and her travel companions: Emma (Katie Cassidy), the older but pathologically irresponsible best friend, and Meg (Leighton Meester), the resentful stepsister whom their parents force to tag along in the hopes of creating a family bond. This seems unnecessary given the stepsiblings are practically adults and outright cruel when you consider Grace has been collecting waitressing tips for four years to fund her dream trip. Perhaps she should have saved for college instead.
The funniest bits take place in Paris. Having apparently never heard of Expedia or user ratings, Grace books the worst tour imaginable, one that serves familiar American foods and sprints through the Louvre in under twenty minutes. A less thoughtful comedy would’ve settled for slapstick about rundown hotels and bad service (to be fair, there’s some of that too), but Monte Carlo seems more interested in cultivating wonderment in its young demographic, establishing the difference between wanting to see the world and wanting to say you’ve seen the world.
Why our heroines don’t ditch the tour is never explained. The decision is taken from them when Grace is mistaken for royalty and becomes the guest of honour at a Monte Carlo charity auction. I admit to losing interest around this point. Of course, Grace meets a prince-like figure (Pierre Boulanger) who loves her for who she is. Of course, the girls lose a precious artefact that belonged in the hotel vault anyway. Of course, everything gets resolved in a way that defies common sense. Of course, the plot is on autopilot, lacking in thought, tension, and anything resembling creativity.
Well, that’s not true. For once, a valid reason is given for perpetuating the lie, one that doesn’t pertain to fear of rejection. With Cordelia nowhere in sight, the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants on Fire wants to make sure the auction goes as planned, securing millions for kids in need. This not only justifies an otherwise criminal act but also provides a more compelling through line for Grace, who left America in search of adventure and never imagined she might find purpose.
Emma and Meg get similar character arcs. The former views herself as a socialite trapped in a small town existence, but we sense from an early lovers’ spat that she isn’t reaching for destiny so much as running from her station. The latter, my favourite, has convinced herself that knowing about the world is the same as experiencing it, an outlook that ties into complex issues of grief and identity. In short, the two are playing the same con game as Grace, except they’re fooling themselves.
I like who these young women become. Their depth redeems much of the movie, even that shot of the Eiffel Tower with the giant “Paris” caption. As it turns out, the device sets up a heartwarming conclusion in locations that might not seem so obvious. Monte Carlo is perhaps too formulaic for its own good, but it seems to me you can do worse than taking your kids to a film that celebrates cultural exploration and encourages them to take part in the world. Just make sure they don’t pick up Bass’ novel afterwards.