What is it about European cities that’s so romantic, other than the fact that Rome is there? There’s an elegance and grace to them that even the older, more organic American cities simply lack. And that character is front and center in Selena Gomez’ new vehicle Monte Carlo. It may not be the greatest of movies, but it has a simple, unassuming charm that carries it through a sometimes uneven execution.
Grace Bennett (Gomez) is a girl from an unnamed small town in Texas. Worse, she’s from the less affluent section, and so she works at the diner, dutifully socking away her tips for her dream week in Paris after she graduates high school despite the scorn of her richer classmates. Her slightly older friend and co-worker Emma (Katie Cassidy) is excited act as chaperone, since she’s never been outside of Texas, even on her damp squib of a modeling career. Her long-time boyfriend Owen (Glee‘s Cory Monteith) is decidedly less sanguine about the prospect.
On the eve of the trip, her mother and stepfather surprise her by packing along her older, slightly dour stepsister Meg (Leighton Meester) for some crash bonding. And so the three set off on what has to be one of the lowest-rent bus tours of Paris, cramming a dozen stops into each day and cramming the girls into a singularly awful one-room “suite” in an outer-arrondissement flophouse.
Thankfully, the girls are separated from the tour at la Tour Eiffel, thought of course they panic at first. They escape a torrential downpour by ducking into a swanky hotel, where it turns out Grace’s doppelgänger — the bratty British heiress Cordelia Winthrop Scott (also Gomez) — is staying. They overhear her blowing off her mother’s plans for her to attend a charity auction in Monte Carlo, and end up turning the mistaken identity to their advantage.
Now in Monte Carlo, each of the three ends up with a romantic storyline of her own — Grace with the heir of the charity, Theo (Pierre Boulanger), Meg with an itinerant Australian who has a habit of turning up everywhere, Riley (Luke Bracey), and Emma with no less than the prince of Monte Carlo, Domenico (Giulio Berruti). It’s obvious who should end up where in the end, and the bumps along the road are well-telegraphed, but somehow I never really minded that much.
A lot of it probably has to do with the scenery. Budapest stands in for most places it can, though some shots in Paris and Monaco are unavoidable. And as lovely as all these cities are already, cinematographer Jonathan Brown shot them with a gorgeous, grainy film stock so they come out looking like they’ve been pulled straight from reruns of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
By and large the acting also isn’t particularly great. Gomez does tackle a double role, but we see so little of Cordelia that it’s hard to see her characterization, much less any development of the distinction between Grace pretending to be Cordelia and Cordelia herself. Cassidy is similarly engaging, but ultimately only adequate.
Meester, though, is a slightly different story. While she is reverting to a more habitual role after her performances in Country Strong and The Roommate, she still displays a real talent with what could have been a perfunctory performance. More than anyone else, Meg actually changes over the course of the story, and Meester brings this change alive all over her face. I’m more convinced than ever that she’s someone whose career is worth watching.
It would be easy to write off Monte Carlo as tween/teen-bait designed to advance Selena Gomez’ career, and there’s a large extent to which that’s true. But scratching the surface reveals something more. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not trying to be; it’s great at what it does.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.