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Sweet ‘Traveling Pants’ don’t quite fit

Four friends are linked by a pair of jeans and summer adventures. By John Hartl

“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” is so unlike the rest of this summer’s multiplex movies that you keep wishing it would be better. Instead of light-saber duels, Batmobiles or invading Martians, it draws its magic from a pair of jeans.

Discovered by four girlfriends who have grown up together, the jeans somehow fit each of them perfectly — even full-figured Carmen (America Ferrera). They decide to share them by mail as they set off on various adventures. In the process they realize that the jeans can bring them luck, maturity and, in a couple of cases, hunky boyfriends.

Shy, art-oriented Lena (Alexis Bledel) runs off to Greece, where she’s rescued from drowning by a young fisherman (Michael Rady, who could be Anthony Quinn’s son). When it turns out he’s from an enemy’s family, they get to re-enact “Romeo and Juliet” in the most gorgeous of settings.

The impulsive, aggressive Bridget (Blake Lively) chases after an equally blond and athletic boy (Mike Vogel) who is scared off by her advances, at least long enough to create a thoroughly artificial sense of dramatic tension.

The depressed and sarcastic Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) works in a Wal-Mart-like store that pays its employees so little that some of them need other jobs to pay the bills. Her life begins to change when she meets a 12-year-old customer (Jenna Boyd) with a sad secret.

Carmen, who has a Latina mother, visits her long-gone WASP father (Bradley Whitford), who is about to marry into a “valley of the blondes,” made up of his blandly insensitive fiancee (Nancy Travis) and her two equally inane teenage children. The fate-twisting jeans even manage to salvage something from this nightmare.

Based on a series of popular teen books by Ann Brashares, the movie is at its best when it’s not trying to deliver helpful little life lessons. Bledel and Rady have an easy chemistry that helps them rise above the romantic cliches that nearly engulf them. Ferrera deftly underlines Carmen’s frustrations, while Tamblyn makes her character’s anger and selfishness surprisingly compelling.

The director, Ken Kwapis, is better-known for television sitcoms (“Malcolm in the Middle”) than for his lame theatrical features (“The Beautician and the Beast”), and he doesn’t appear to have much of an instinct for juggling so many characters.

Especially in the film’s second half, the cuts between storylines are choppy and awkwardly handled. Kwapis keeps reaching for emotional climaxes; the more he reaches, the phonier they feel. The tearjerking of the final scenes is teeth-grindingly obvious, as are several attempts to wrap everything up and leave no loose ends.

The script is credited to Elizabeth Chandler (“A Little Princess”) and Delia Ephron, who worked on the upcoming big-screen version of “Bewitched.” While they don’t bring much distinction to the assignment, it can’t be easy to take Brashares’ premise seriously. In the end, it’s the attractive cast and the vacation-ready locations that keep this “Sisterhood” from going under.