I think we’re all familiar with the phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In the case of Monte Carlo, the exact opposite is true; parts of it work about as well as can be expected, but the whole doesn’t add up to very much. It’s at once a lightweight teen romance, a routine but serviceable coming-of-age drama, an exasperating comedy of errors, and a bit of a travelogue. Most of this involves the charming Selena Gomez, who plays not one but two characters. Some may write her off as a packaged product for the Disney Channel, but I’ve seen her in Ramona and Beezus, and I think there’s more there than meets the eye. Her appearance in Monte Carlo isn’t likely to mean much of anything in the long run, but she has a presence and she seems to enjoy what she’s doing.
It’s based on Jules Bass’ novel Headhunters, which tells the story of four middle-aged women from New Jersey that travel to Monte Carlo, pose as wealthy heiresses, go searching for potential husbands, and end up meeting four gigolos posing as wealthy playboys. The film reduces the number of women to three, makes them about twenty to twenty-five years younger, and tells a story that would be far more appealing to girls in the eleven-to-fifteen age range. This means – and I hope this doesn’t upset you too much – that there are no gigolos. It begins in Texas, where we find a recent high school graduate named Grace (Gomez) and her best friend, Emma (Katie Cassedy), a high school dropout. They’re both waitresses and are saving up for a trip to Paris. When they’re finally able to go, they’re joined by Grace’s uptight stepsister, Meg (Leighton Meester), who can’t do anything other than criticize and complain.
The sights are stunning, but the trip is a disaster. After having to endure a shabby, cramped hotel room and a third-rate bus tour, Grace, Emma, and Meg are left behind at the top of the Eiffel Tower. They then get lost in a rainstorm trying to find their way back to their hotel. They take refuge in a much fancier hotel, where, in a twist of fate, Grace is mistaken for a spoiled British socialite named Cordelia Winthrop Scott (also played by Gomez). Cordelia is scheduled to fly to Monte Carlo and take part in a ball and charity auction, but since she could not care less about disadvantaged children in Romania, she decides to blow them off and go on her own vacation. Emma sees an opportunity here to get the trip she – yes, only she – deserved. Grace and Meg are reluctant, but they decide to play along. And so, Grace is now Cordelia, Meg and Emma are her new American friends, and they’re taken on an all-expenses-paid trip to Monte Carlo.
From here, the story gets less plausible with each passing scene, which is quite an achievement since it wasn’t all that plausible to begin with. Certain elements seem to have been added to the screenplay out of convention, and this certainly includes the romantic subplots. Grace is introduced to Theo (Pierre Boulanger), the handsome son of a wealthy French philanthropist. Likewise, Meg literally bumps into Riley (Luke Bracey), a hunky Australian who has lusted for adventure since recovering from a serious rugby injury. Emma fools around with a European prince, but only because it will allow her, if only for a moment, to live the high life. As all this goes on, the threat of discovery looms menacingly over Grace, which is actually quite miraculous considering how she can never quite keep up the British accent. Eventually, there will be a frenetic, almost slapstick search for a missing diamond necklace, which is to be auctioned off.
The single most unnecessary subplot involves Emma’s boyfriend, Owen (Cory Monteith), the all-American football jock. He feels threatened by Emma’s wanderlust, and even worries that getting a taste of the outside world will make her forget him. Determined to win her back, he follows her to Paris. How he was able to afford an overseas flight is never explained, but more to the point, it would have been better to extract this and make it into its own movie; as a subplot in Monte Carlo, it gets lost in the shuffle, and it ultimately contributes little if anything to the movie. There are only two saving graces: (1) Cassedy and Monteith play their roles competently; (2) the filmmakers resisted the urge to turn Monteith’s character into a boorish American tourist in France.
As for Meester and Bracey, they do have a couple of tender scenes together, but that doesn’t change the fact that their subplot is just as superfluous. That leaves Gomez and Boulanger, who would have better chemistry if their characters’ circumstances weren’t so contrived. Perhaps the filmmakers were going for something along the lines of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, which successfully wove together separate stories of love, friendship, and life lessons. Monte Carlo is similarly structured, but it doesn’t reach that level of storytelling; it lacks focus, its stories aren’t as compelling, and it’s a bit more juvenile in its approach. Still, it has its moments, and I guess I should be grateful for that. I did, after all, go into it with very low expectations.