Amanda Bynes fans probably didn't get most of the Shakespeare references in her As You Like It-inspired She's the Man, so, behold: This time she's gone for something a bit more familiar with Sydney White. Originally entitled Sydney White and the Seven Dorks — which would have been actually funny and therefore too risky for such a homogenized studio product — the movie takes the classic Snow White story and resets it at a modern university. You might expect a college comedy version of a fairy tale to skew a bit older, to be a bit risqué and perhaps tailored for the actual college crowd, but it's actually a more toned-down and kid-friendly version of the Grimms' tale than even Walt Disney's animated take.
Which isn't to say it's all bad. When you get to see enough of these types of movies — from John Tucker Must Die to whatever fresh cinematic hell Hilary Duff has managed to foist upon us this year — you're thankful for small mercies. Or, as our president might put it, you start to develop the soft bigotry of low expectations. Keep this in mind as we proceed.
Bynes is an appealing screen presence — it's been a while since we've seen an actress with such an effective tomboy-cutie shtick — but she tends to choose crappy projects. (Her most entertaining movie to date was Big Fat Liar.) At any rate, she's arguably the most macho Snow White ever as Sydney, a plumber's daughter who works on construction sites prior to packing up for college, where she intends to join her late mother's sorority. But the sorority is run by Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton), and just in case you miss the significance of her surname, we get two separate close-ups of the name-plate on her parking space. Unfortunately, this film doesn't have the cojones to take the fairy tale all the way and have Rachel marry Sydney's dad (and while we're at it, actual dwarfs would have been good too). Instead, Rachel and Sydney vie for the heart of the same frat boy, Tyler (Matt Long).
This is a story so determined to be inoffensive that, while it mocks the shallowness of the Greek system, it offers up a fraternity guy as the ideal for even a liberated woman (although he's that rare breed of jock who volunteers at a soup kitchen for the cleanest homeless people you've ever seen in your life, plus he's good at video games, which is still a mildly nerdy activity). And then there are the seven dorks, who live in the Vortex, a crumbling, incongruously fairy-tale-style house complete with conveniently draped fake cobwebs.
All that said, director Joe Nussbaum knows his dorkdom, and nails it — you'd expect no less from a man who made his name with the Star Wars in-joke-laden short George Lucas in Love. These are not handsome actors in nerd glasses, but awkward, sometimes obnoxious geeks, some of whom look downright weird. (Jeremy Howard, for one, looks like Tom Green's mildly deformed younger brother, and is best known for playing aliens.) Exchange student Embele (Donte Bonner) is clearly Sleepy, and allergy-ridden Lenny (Jack Carpenter) is probably Sneezy, but beyond that, it's anybody's guess. Nussbaum dresses the Vortex set with full-size Darth Vader and Greedo replicas, not to mention a rare "Return of the Jedi Power of the Force Luke Skywalker in Combat Poncho" action figure. Trust me, the nomenclature is correct. Nussbaum should try sci-fi, since he obviously knows it well.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.