Once you get past the preposterousness of Martha Coolidge's tinsel-teen fable "The Prince and Me" -- including a family of Danish royalty who speak with a mishmash of accents and a Thanksgiving in Wisconsin where the trees are all green and the denizens are running around in skimpy T-shirts -- its sly pleasures are likely to sneak up on you, maybe against your better judgment. Julia Stiles is Paige Morgan, an intelligent, highly focused pre-med student who grew up on a family farm in Wisconsin. Her dream is to join Doctors Without Borders and to travel the world, selflessly helping others. But here comes trouble in the form of cocky young Edvard (Luke Mably), the Crown Prince of Denmark, who has come to the States to go to a normal American college and, more important, to experience college girls gone wild, as he's seen at home via satellite TV. The two end up becoming lab partners in their organic chemistry class, and after a rocky start, their romance ignites. Before long, Paige is on a plane to Denmark, and next thing you know, she's wearing a twinkly engagement ring and having ball gowns custom-made for her trim yet healthy American figure.
The fantasy element is obviously the draw here, and Coolidge -- who cut her teeth as a director by making intelligent teen comedies -- milks it like a recalcitrant cow. "The Prince and Me" reaches the pinnacle of craziness when Edvard (his nickname is, thankfully, Eddie) appears on horseback in full dress uniform (including one of those tall, stiff, ridiculous hats with a droopy horse's tail dangling down in front), and sweeps Paige, who's dressed in typical college-girl garb of jeans and a floral button-down, up beside him.
But Coolidge does have a plan: She wheedles us into this glittery cocoon of princessy dreams only to throw in a twist ending that's even more unrealistic, in which the boy in the equation compromises to accommodate the girl's dreams, instead of the other way around. You can leave the theater muttering, "That would never happen in real life!" But then again, is it any less believable than the idea of a young woman from Wisconsin dreamily drifting through a Danish castle after becoming engaged to a prince? Coolidge, working from a script by Jack Amiel, Michael Begler and Katherine Fugate, turns the movie's silliness back on us in a way that's absurdly satisfying.
But to get to the end, you'll have to suffer through Miranda Richardson (as Eddie's mom, the queen) giving her finest acting-class Danish accent. (She sounds a little like Cloris Leachman in "Young Frankenstein.") James Fox, as the king, steps in with his usual degree of class and elevates every scene he's in. Mably's Eddie, probably chosen for his resemblance to the heartthrob Prince William, drifts through the picture looking stiffly handsome and dashingly uninteresting, even though he may, by the end, begin to grow on you like an exotic lichen.
It's Stiles who anchors the movie firmly in place. No matter how absurd the story gets, or what ridiculous actions or motivations are requested of her character, Stiles is wholly believable every millisecond she's on-screen. Like the character she plays here, Stiles has a reputation for being determined and focused. What's astonishing about her is how she uses that quality as a filter to stop any flicker of untrue emotion from slipping through. The energy field that glows around her is a spiky halo of fierceness and vulnerability -- she's a lion cub in eyeliner, a rare species whose defiant matter-of-factness actually endears her to you instead of pushing you away.
Stiles is the kind of actress who you know is always thinking, even though she never lets you hear or see the grinding of the gears. (Richardson, in this movie at least, could learn a thing or two from her.) Paige has an after-hours job at a popular student hangout on campus, and Eddie, who has come to the States against his parents' wishes, actually has to take a job there to support himself. After the joint has closed, we see Paige going about the task of wiping off tables and rearranging chairs. Winding down after a long evening of work, she breaks into a slow shuffle as she cleans, starting out clumsily and then relaxing into the beat, eventually kicking off her red clogs. Paige isn't aware that Eddie's watching her. And Stiles plays the scene as if she's unaware that anyone, even the audience, is watching: The sequence is intimate and endearing, an intensely private moment that looks like something straight out of real life instead of a brazen fantasy.
Stiles maintains that aura of earthy realism all the way through "The Prince and Me," even in the scene where Richardson's queen leads her into the jewel vaults and suggests she choose something to wear to an upcoming soiree at the palace. The room is what Aladdin's cave would look like if it had been meticulously rearranged by Harry Winston, a trove of fat, glittery jewels lying on velvet pillows like indolent courtesans. (There's even a margarine-commercial crown, which we will later see placed, with great solemnity, on Eddie's own handsome young pate.)
Paige oohs and ahs over the jewels, because, well, what girl wouldn't? She ultimately chooses a necklace that's simple and discreet and utterly suitable for both her age and her personality. And when she puts it on, admiring the way it looks around her slender neck, she radiates not materialistic frivolity but pure joy -- as if she were simply recognizing, sensibly, that any beautiful thing in this world, whether made by nature or man, deserves its minute in the sun. Any other actress might have turned "The Prince and Me" into an absurd parody, but Stiles plays it straight, and every one of her choices works. She may be the finest of our young actresses, and it will be a pleasure to watch her grow. She doesn't need a prince to lend her either glamour or class. She's royalty already.