Ahhh, Paris. The City of Lights. Or love. Or whatever. (Cue the concertinas.) The Arc de Triomphe. The Eiffel Tower. Les cafés. La romance. (Insert heavy sigh.) C’est magnifique!
Unless, of course, you get roped into a less-than-magnifique Parisan tour that whips you through the Louvre in 20 minutes and tries to pass off a hamburger and fries as fine French dining. (Would that be “le burgeur d’ham?” And would Parisians actually call them “French” fries?)
This is the sort of tour that Grace, a newly minted high school graduate from Texas, finds herself on at the beginning of Monte Carlo. After studiously saving waitressing money for years to take a trip to Seine City, she finds herself having about as much fun there as the Germans did circa 1944.
You’d think that Grace could at least have some fun with her tripmates. But alas, non. Oh, Emma, her fellow waitress and makeshift chaperone, can be a lot of fun. Maybe a little too much at times. But older stepsister Meg, a dour spoilsport who can kill any semblance of fun at 50 paces, has thrown Emma off her game, and now the two of them fight like Facebook frienemies locked in a mixed martial arts cage match.
So when the three of them miss their tour bus and have to walk back to their decrepit flophouse in the pouring rain, Grace has had enough. Feeling ever so sorry for herself, she and her traveling companions duck into a swanky hotel to dry off.
But as Grace stows away in a bathroom stall to empty the water out of her ears, who walks in but … Grace? No, no, Meg and Emma quickly realize. She may be the spitting image of the self-effacing Texan, but she’s far too snooty, and her accent (“It sounds like a mean Mary Poppins,” Emma says) is far too pretentious.
No, this dopplegänger is Cordelia Winthrop Scott, a preening and pompous British celebutante, preparing to depart for Monte Carlo for some sort of tiresome charity event. What sort of charity, you ask? “I don’t know,” Cordelia sighs dismissively into her phone. “Polar bears. Helping people.” It’s just something her mother wants her to do to repair her tattered image.
Only, she’s not going to do it, Cordelia tells her friend over the phone. Charity shmarity—she’s going to skip town instead. And then, leaving a trail of haughty vapors in her wake, she’s gone. Just like that.
What a jerque! the travelers think. What a bratte! How could someone just up and leave a charity in a lurch like that? How could someone look down her nose at a free trip to Monte Carlo?
If only there was something Grace and her friends could do to help the charity (and see the glamorous port of call at the same time). If only they could save the day (and stay in a suite). If only one of them could pretend to be Cordelia …
But that would be wrong.
We can quibble with the girls’ decision to sub themselves in as Cordelia and her entourage. After all, few of us would tell our own children that if they ever have a chance to snag a free trip by passing themselves off as celebrities, they should go right ahead and do it.
“It’s stealing,” Meg rightfully says. “It’s seizing the moment,” Emma counters.
In that sense, they—and we—know that what they decide to do is wrong.
But while the end never justifies the means, we have to acknowledge that Grace and her cohorts are far better representatives for a charitable undertaking than Cordelia would have been. Grace, as we see the moment she crafts a smiling face out of one customer’s plate of bacon and eggs, is kind and humble. And when Cordelia’s aunt uncovers the ruse and confronts the imposter, Grace tells her—rightly and sincerely—that she has to keep up the facade to help the charity. “I’m not about to stand in the way of helping those kids,” Grace says. “Are you?”
Emma and Meg learn some valuable lessons in Monte Carlo as well. Emma, who had a fight with boyfriend Owen before she left for Europe, flirts a bit with a local prince; but the innocent dalliance only makes her appreciate her beau back home all the more.
When Owen unexpectedly shows up in Monte Carlo, they reconcile. “Emma, you deserve the best,” he tells her—his way of saying that if his modest life in Texas isn’t good enough for her, she should find something better. “But I already have the best,” she says.
Meanwhile, Meg, who’s mourning her recently deceased mother, discovers that life still goes on. And that it’s meant to be treasured. As her father tells her before she leaves, “It’s what Mom would’ve wanted.”
[Spoiler Warning] As for Grace, she eventually confesses everything, even though she knows it could mean disgrace, jail time and losing the affections of a gentleman from Monte Carlo whom she’s become so fond of.
Meg discovers the joy of life again with help from a guy she meets—a friendly vagabond named Riley who travels the world in search of adventure. While his influence is in many respects quite positive, Meg, a young woman in her early 20s, makes the provocative decision not to return to Texas with her friends and to navigate the globe instead with her new man. There’s no indication the two get married en route—though, in fairness, we never see them do anything more than kiss, either.
Speaking of which, there’s a lot of kissing going on here—but it’s all about affection and romance, with little, if anything, more being hinted at. This PG film posits that love is a very, very good thing, sidestepping overt sexuality at almost every turn.
I should emphasize the word almost, however, because Monte Carlo’s fashion sense is a bit risqué. Grace, Emma and much of the population of Monte Carlo show up on the beach wearing tiny bikinis, and some of the evening gowns are bare-shouldered affairs. Grace laments the fit of her own strapless gown, surmising, “Maybe the other me has a little more going on upstairs.” When Emma asks if she’s missing something (meaning a necklace to wear), Grace says she feels like she’s missing two things.
Emma’s regular clothes tend to reveal a lot of leg and a bit of cleavage. Grace looks through a window to see the upper torso of an overweight man in a beret taking a bath. In the Louvre, we see a painting that includes a woman’s bare breast.
In doing some tabloid research on Cordelia, Emma and Meg discover she’s done a variety of tawdry—but unspecified—deeds. “What did I do?” Grace asks. “What didn’t you do?” Meg tells her.
Grace, Emma and Meg tie Cordelia up in her own room and stuff an apple in her mouth so she won’t make a ruckus. Cordelia slaps someone.
A character says “a‑‑” once. Later, she kisses her hand and smacks her posterior simultaneously, suggesting another usage of that word. Emma almost calls Meg a bad word, but stops short of doing so. Beyond those instances, we hear one use each of “crap” and “heck,” while “frack” stands in once for the f-word.
Emma grabs for a glass of bubbly, but Meg quickly puts it back, telling her that they all need to “stay focused.” An errant polo shot uncorks several champagne bottles. Before leaving, Meg quips that a trip to Paris would be wasted on Emma. “She’d be just as happy at Six Flags,” she says, “on beer night.”
The plot of Monte Carlo requires Grace, Emma and Meg to lie, cheat and steal in order to pull off their ruse. Meg takes a rose from a street vendor and sticks it in Riley’s hair, and the two run away from the flummoxed vendor without paying. The three young women run down an off-limits staircase while trying to get out of the Eiffel Tower.
Monte Carlo is a light, frothy romcom. It’s meant to burnish Selena Gomez’s rising star (you can read our review of her latest album, out the same week as this film, here), to inspire tween girls to dream of their own Monte Carloan princes and give consumers a sweet summer diversion. Yes, it’s got a few problems, ranging from its surreptitious conceit to some barely-there bikinis to a smattering of mild innuendo. That said, it’s still more innocent than much, if not most, of the fare targeting teen audiences these days.
Now, Monte Carlo isn’t revolutionary cinema. It’s not full of depth or angst or CGI wizardry. But it’s not meant to be. It feels like an old-school, live-action Disney flick, even though it isn’t. And that’s because it is, at its core, a princess movie, in which our trio of Cinderellas find their own Prince Charmings.
But in Monte Carlo, these women don’t transform themselves into princesses—not really. Cordelia makes all that glitz and glamour look pretty unappealing, anyway. Instead, they all eventually realize their true value comes from inside.
Emma finds she’d far rather be at home with her man in Texas than on some yacht with the rich and famous. Meg finds a way to unleash a radiant smile that had been banished by grief. And Grace learns something pretty cool, too: the inherent value of who she really is.
Before she leaves, Grace laments to her mother that she hopes her Paris trip will be more than just a vacation, that it might be a life-changing experience. She longs to come back different, somehow … more confident, more graceful. In a word, better.
“Honey, it’s not magic,” her mother says, debunking every Disneyland commercial ever made. “It’s not going to turn you into a whole new person. Thank goodness.”
Thank goodness is right. In Monte Carlo, Grace learns that clothes don’t, in fact, make the girl. Nor do jewels or titles or money, for that matter. It’s the girl who makes the girl. And today, when so many young women seem pressured to be almost anyone but themselves, that’s a pretty important message.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.