I can't say I walked into "The Prince & Me" eagerly. The idea of Julia Stiles as a girl who falls in love with Danish royalty sounded improbable. At 23, Stiles seems too much like a 35-year-old career woman to be bothered letting such a shopworn premise carry her away.
But the tag line boasts that "this fairy tale is about to get real," and, without completely rebooting the genre, the movie does challenge and refresh the limits of the fantasy. This is a smart piece of revisionist fluff that dares to question what happens after the royal honeymoon is over.
Stiles plays Paige Morgan, a student at the University of Wisconsin, who shows up for her senior year serious about her med school applications and bewildered that back in Manitowoc all her girlfriends are getting married. Her college friends are amazed that she can be so focused on her future. But having grown up working hard hours on her parents' dairy farm, she seems to have developed a low tolerance for wishy-washy slacking. Which makes Eddie (Luke Mably), the chemistry lab partner who asks her to lift her shirt, an affront to her meaning of life.
Eddie's a spoiled playboy and next in line to ascend the Danish throne. Ater catching a "Girls Gone Wild"-style ad starring the collegiate breasts of Wisconsin, he and his starchy manservant Soren (Ben Miller) are on campus to see them in person. His parents, the king and queen (James Fox and Miranda Richardson), have given their thrill-seeking son the green light, but, in his self-emancipation, he takes a job at the local hangout anyway. You can guess who his co-worker is.
Paige isn't the least bit thrilled. Stiles, in fact, is so good at despising what an aimless and nauseating layabout Eddie is that you dread her conversion. But soon she's showing him how to do his laundry and use the deli slicer, and inviting him home to the farm for Thanksgiving. For his part, Eddie is helping her brush up on her Shakespeare, a writer for whom she has no use. That last part is a nice bit of irony since Stiles has fared well in three movie adaptations of the Bard's plays.
Before Eddie's arrival on the Morgan farm, "The Prince & Me" is a better-than-average opposites-attracting comedy. Once there, the movie begins to distinguish itself from its more juvenile peers. The prince's studly facade falls away, until all that remains is his British accent. (He sounds Danish only around Richardson's icy queen.) He wrangles cows with Paige's brothers, wins the power mower derby, and listens to her father (John Bourgeois) wax on about the rigors of competing with big corporate farms.
Eventually, the Danish press catches up with Eddie, and Paige discovers he's a royal named Edvard. Her ultimate decision to drop everything and chase him to Denmark takes the movie in another surprising direction. (Paige's pals even help her pay for the ticket!) This is a girl who truly wants to see if the "Pretty Woman" experience is for her. Does she believe in Prince Charmings and life as a possible queen? Does she, as Eddie's disapproving mother believes, want to be another Princess Di? The movie quietly draws its parallels between Eddie and tabloid fave Prince William, whom Mably vaguely resembles.
The screenplay, by Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, and Katherine Fugate, has the temerity to suggest a world whose characters have worked more than a day in their lives. This movie has dirt under its fingernails: Regardless of what Magali Guidasci's exquisitely regal costumes suggest, royal life seems somehow more grueling and less glamorous than managing a farm. Even as it becomes clear that the writers have just traded one fantasy for another, the swap makes practical sense, more so with the ever-so-sensible Stiles fronting the picture. Like an old-fashioned star, she has no interest in playing frivolous or cute, instead practicing the career life-lessons her character didn't heed from Julia Roberts in "Mona Lisa Smile."
Veteran Martha Coolidge directs "The Prince & Me" with a strong down-home sense of realism that lends the proceedings grit and a whiff of soul. The agrarian stuff is particularly lively, and the European royalty sequences aren't swept up in cheesiness. The movie doesn't rush to its feel-really-good conclusion. Like Stiles herself, it's very practical about its fantasies.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Prince & Me
Directed by: Martha Coolidge
Written by: Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, and Katherine Fugate
Starring: Julia Stiles, Luke Mably, Ben Miller, James Fox, Alberta Watson, Miranda Richardson
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 108 minutes
Rated: PG (some sex-related material and language)