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A fairy tale that falls flat

Only on the campaign trail could anyone find a U.S. presidency depicted as fictitiously as in First Daughter, the second-best movie about a president's rebellious daughter to hit screens this year. Nothing to brag about; there has been only one other.

Comparisons between Forest Whitaker's film and the earlier, superior Chasing Liberty are unavoidable, especially because both films turn on the same card dealt from the bottom of the dramatic deck. It's amazing that any Secret Service agent assigned to protect a president's daughter could be so cute and fall in love so easily, at the risk of his job. Twice, in two administrations.

The difference between the films puts First Daughter in a distant second place. Chasing Liberty was set almost entirely outside the White House, with Mandy Moore embarking on a European road trip to escape fame. That meant lots of beautiful scenery that conveyed a palpable sense of true romance. First Daughter stays stateside and focused on the nuts and bolts of life as a president's daughter. That means a lot of logic must be stretched or forgotten while hearts flutter.

Katie Holmes plays the caged bird this time, a confident, composed woman named Samantha Mackenzie tired of constant surveillance by bodyguards and the public. She enrolls in a California college to escape Washington and the pressures of her father's (Michael Keaton) re-election campaign. Anyone with any awareness of similar choices by Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton and the Bush twins can smell the baloney at every turn.

Everything protective in First Daughter is either overblown when Samantha really wants to be low-key, or incredibly lax when she wants to sneak away with James Lansome (Marc Blucas), the agent posing as her dorm floor leader. Classmates are either gawkers or protesters, except for her roommate Mia (Amerie Rogers), who's jealous when she's not the center of attention.

Part of the film's frustrating taste stems from Holmes resorting to a showcase better suited to Hilary Duff or some pop star making a movie debut. Holmes shined in more challenging roles in Pieces of April, Wonder Boys and Go, so it's disappointing to see her here. She's good enough to make the role work, to make Samantha a decent, if mythical, role model most of the time. But it's still beneath her talent.

Keaton is fine, playing one of those presidents the likes of which has never existed. Each time Samantha steps out of line _ at a raucous pool party or during a drunken binge after realizing James' deception _ the father-in-chief sets aside world affairs to counsel his daughter. The campaign is merely an inconvenience to Samantha's independence.

First Daughter is harmless and, if the box office results for Chasing Liberty are an indication, inconsequential after the opening weekend. Chasing Liberty was a breath of fresh air from a stuffy position; First Daughter is a Cinderella story spotlighting a woman who's already royalty. None of this would matter much if Whitaker didn't sell his movie as an insider's view. He poses one ideal and delivers another, a tactic that works in politics but not the cinema.


Grade: C+

Director: Forest Whitaker

Cast: Katie Holmes, Marc Blucas, Michael Keaton, Amerie Rogers, Margaret Colin, Lela Rochon

Screenplay: Jessica Bendinger, Kate Kondell

Rating: PG; brief profanity and sexual references, teen alcohol abuse

Running time: 104 min.