Particularly in the movies, the French Riviera is as glamorous as it gets: a golden-hued playground for the likes of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant where open-top cars are cinematic law.
But today’s teenyboppers have just as much pull as the idols of yesterday. The gauzy “Monte Carlo” stars not our most regal cinema heroes, but the young TV upstarts Selena Gomez (Disney Channel star, pop singer and Justin Bieber girlfriend), Katie Cassidy (“Melrose Place”) and Leighton Meester (“Gossip Girl”).
The 18-year-old Grace (Gomez) has just graduated high school in a small Texas town. She has long dreamed of visiting Paris, saving up tips from waitressing alongside her friend, the brassy 21-year-old high school dropout Emma (Cassidy).
Grace’s mother (Andie MacDowell, in the briefest of roles) and her stepfather (Brett Cullen) are happy to let her and Emma go for a week, so long as they take Grace’s new stepsister, the 21-year-old Meg (Meester). This upsets Emma because she sees Meg as a nervous wet blanket, and Grace for having a family holiday forced on her long-held dream.
In Paris, their trip sours, not because of the usual culprits (rude Parisians, discombobulating rotaries, too much foie gras) but a hyper-speed tour bus that blitzes through tourist sites and eventually leaves them behind. This (along with sudden rain) is enough to make the trip a disaster in the eyes of Grace.
She sums up the status allure of the French capital, lamenting that she’s not “the kind of person” who can go to Paris.
But at that moment, the trio crosses paths with a wealthy heiress who looks exactly like Grace, because, well, she’s also Selena Gomez. As Cordelia Winthrop Scott, Gomez plays a British, snobby look-alike to Grace. Urged on by Emma and buoyed by a confused hotel staff, Grace impersonates Cordelia, winning them a fancy room for the night and tickets on a private jet the next day to Monaco.
At Monte Carlo, the action generally swirls around the plush Hotel de Paris, as the girls live out a fantasy of luxury, complete with an international consortium of handsome men. Grace falls in with a young French aristocrat (Pierre Boulanger), Emma lands a dashing Italian (Giulio Berruti) while her hometown boyfriend (Cory Monteith) tries to track her down, and Meg hits it off with an Australian backpacker (Luke Bracey).
The disguise, naturally, begins to wear thin. But for the most part, the stakes never feel very high in “Monte Carlo.” The girls occasionally bicker, but they’re never much at each other’s throats. Until the final scenes bring things to a head, there are surprisingly few close scrapes and not even one visit to the local casinos.
Impersonating a famous heiress, one would think, might lead to numerous comical situations. But then again, it’s “Some Like it Hot,” not “All Like it Hot.” “Monte Carlo” likes it lukewarm.
That’s partially because Gomez, while endearingly earnest, doesn’t command the screen. It’s essentially her first semi-adult film, and one feels her stretching. Meester and Cassidy provide solid sidekicks, though that perhaps sells them short: They ultimately carry the movie. All of their storylines lead to self-discovery and sappiness.
Nevertheless, director Thomas Bezucha (“The Family Stone”), production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski (who frequently works with Stephen Frears) and the composer Michael Giacchino (“Up,” “Super 8”) do exceptionally well in giving the limp material (the script was loosely based on a novel by Jules Bass and co-written by Bezucha and numerous others) a first-rate production.
The tone is light and the pacing efficient. Giacchino’s graceful score, in particular, stands above. Its French flourishes sound like a B-side to his superb score to “Ratatouille.”
Though the raison d’etre of “Monte Carlo” is to glorify and benefit from the glamour of the Riviera, the girls — to their credit — ultimately reject it. In one scene, Emma watches “To Catch a Thief,” but even from the lavish confines of the Hotel the Paris, Grace Kelly still seems unattainable, a world away.