Nobody was expecting “Sydney White” to be “Citizen Kane.”
After all, a movie transplanting the “Snow White” fairy tale to the wild-and-crazy college world and starring Amanda Bynes doesn’t exactly scream great cinema. Nor does the fact that director Joe Nussbaum’s greatest prior work was “American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile.” Yet sometimes abysmally low expectations are the only remedy for an objectively terrible movie, as the film only needs to be less awful than anticipated to be “surprisingly” enjoyable. Many a movie has been thus rescued by low expectations and the readiness to find a certain campy hilarity in really bad filmmaking.
“Sydney White” is not one of those movies. Not content to be merely stupid or uninteresting, “Sydney White” is aggressively intolerable. Nussbaum fails to coax a credible performance from any of the participants in his movie, right down to the gaffer. The extras lack enthusiasm, and are frequently caught staring blankly at something off-set. The actors who play White’s band of lovable misfits, her — it pains me to write this — seven dorks, seem not to have matured beyond their junior-high theater classes, even though some of them are clearly in their early 30s. Casting older actors to play young often allows a director to bring more mature talents to bear without significantly impacting the believability of a character; think 32-year-old Rachel McAdams in “Mean Girls.” But the Nussbaum genius requires that we subvert the old ways! Have talentless older actresses fill younger roles, they cannot believably play! Brilliant! In Sydney’s roommate, the effect is particularly eerie. The actress has a young but inexplicably lined face, which when paired with her tacky wardrobe and preposterously feathered hair creates a decidedly unsettling appearance reminiscent of the prematurely aged look of child beauty queens.
Amanda Bynes (“Hairspray”) spends the majority of the movie being out-acted by her decolletage, giving a stunningly poor performance in the title role of Sydney White. As the lead in a romantic comedy, she fails to create either humor or romance. Although the script certainly does her no favors, Bynes struggles through even the simplest scenes. In the opening moments of the movie, a college-bound Bynes receives a card of well wishes from the construction crew that has helped her father raise her after her mother’s death. It is neither an important nor taxing scene, but Bynes’s acting is entirely unconvincing. When she is called upon to display more complex feelings, her face screws up with effort as she attempts to present, in sequence, the facial expressions that demonstrate anger, sadness and uncertainty. Ultimately, all she manages to convey is her woeful inadequacy to the task.
Someone clearly realized how deficient Bynes’s acting was and tried to remedy the damage in post-production by adding an extraordinarily ham-handed score to telegraph the emotional content of a scene to the audience. The cure of the Disney-rock style music, however, is just as offensive as the acting and does little to dampen the screams of existential agony from the audience.
As surprises no one, the final battle between the Greeks and the dorks involves Sydney running for president of student council. Sydney, inspired by the a lecture about elections that is cross-cut with the campaigning montage, decides to reach out to other groups outside her dorky base. She participates in the Hawaiian luau to win over the Pacific Islanders, trains with the ROTC group and drinks Manischewitz at prayer with the Jews. Each group is associated with a particular activity intimately connected with the nature of the group. Which then leads to the visit to the LBGTQ club where Bynes listens to the self-indulgent dramatic poetry readings of the homosexuals. In a movie that had largely avoided the classic — and, might I add — un-offensive stereotypes of college life, the moment is jarringly inappropriate.
It is a rare experience to encounter a movie entirely without redeeming qualities. It is an hour and a half of your life you will never get back. Given the choice between seeing “Sydney White” and pulling one’s own teeth out, I recommend the latter.