by Eric D. Snider
Released: October 20, 2000
Sally Field's directorial debut, entitled "Beautiful," is anything but. It's an amateurishly written, miscasted, wrong-headed slab of drudgery that punishes all who choose to watch it.
We begin in 1986 in Naperville, Ill. Twelve-year-old Mona Hibbard (Colleen Rennison) wants nothing more than to be a beauty queen, despite being blessed with a face that is more charismatic than beautiful. She enters one local pageant after another, with no support from her drunk, trailer-trash mother (Linda Hart) or her creepy stepfather (Brent Briscoe). All she has is her equally unpopular friend Ruby (Jacqueline Steiger), who helps her sew dresses for the contests and lends moral support.
Skip ahead several years. Mona (now played by Minnie Driver) is apparently promiscuous -- the film hints vaguely at this during one 30-second scene -- and gets pregnant. Knowing that pageant rules would disqualify her from being Miss Illinois, much less Miss America (or "Miss American Miss," as the movie calls it, apparently due to legal reasons), she convinces Ruby (now Joey Lauren Adams) to raise the child as her own.
This discussion is not shown to us; instead, it is very broadly hinted at later. We're left to wonder why the movie would make such obvious hints, yet never actually talk about it. Surely they can't have expected us not to pick up on it, especially when the hinting is so obvious.
Skip ahead several more years. The child is Vanessa (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), a cute little tyke whom people often observe looks a lot like her "aunt" Mona but who shares none of Mona's self-esteem issues or pageant interests. Mona is crowned Miss Illinois and gets to go to California for the Miss American Miss pageant. She needs to have family in the audience, though, as that sort of thing historically impresses the judges. (Everything Mona does in this movie is calculated to help her win beauty pageants, including sabotaging competitors in some of her teen years.) Her mom, with whom she is estranged for no apparent reason, won't go with her.
As luck would have it, Ruby gets tossed in jail on murder charges when a depressed old woman at the convalescent home where she works commits suicide with stolen sleeping pills. (This is a rather cruel turn for the movie, by the way: That old woman exists solely so she can die and cause Ruby not to be at the pageant. Couldn't they have found some less morbid plot device?) Vanessa is now in the care of Mona, who seems to have no parenting skills despite having been Ruby's roommate and Vanessa's babysitter for seven years. The two of them head for California, where Mona finally learns what's really important in life, or something like that.
Jon Bernstein's clunky script doesn't help Sally Field's unsubtle directing. The comedy usually feels forced, and while the film occasionally stumbles toward satire (beauty pageants are a ripe topic), the effect is off-putting, as it seems so out-of-place. If the movie were overall a satire (or even a real comedy), it might work. But when so many ridiculous things are taken seriously -- like 12-year-old Mona's stepfather making sexual advances toward her and no one caring -- it's hard to know when anything is supposed to be funny. ("You wanted us to take THAT seriously, but now you want us to laugh at THIS?" is what I kept wondering.)
And there are so many things that just don't make sense. When Mona and Vanessa are in California, they pretend not to know each other. Why? All Mona has to do is tell people Vanessa is her niece or little sister, as there are no pageant rules against that sort of thing. Or if they're going to lie, they could at least avoid looking panicked every time someone asks. Surely a woman as manipulative and selfish as Mona would be better at lying.
A girl whom Mona sabotaged years ago is now a TV reporter, hell-bent on exposing Mona's fraud. Her character, Joyce Parkins (Leslie Stefanson) is utterly cartoonish and moronic, broadcasting live from outside the pageant doors. Who would watch this show instead of the pageant itself? And her show apparently lasts as long as the pageant, as she is able to make her observations to the home audience at any point she chooses, live on the air. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Again, if this were a satire, we'd be able to swallow absurdity like this, as well as the two-dimensional characters, because it would all be for the larger purpose of mocking whatever it's mocking. But as a treacly comedy-drama, it just comes across as stupid.
Shall we talk casting? Minnie Driver, while by no means ugly, simply does not have the face or body of a Miss America finalist. In fact, she sticks out like a sore thumb among the polished Barbie dolls she competes against. Joey Lauren Adams (whose Ruby loves Mona for no reason AT ALL, as she gets nothing whatsoever from the relationship) looks the part more than Driver does, and Driver would have been fine as the best friend.
Oh, well. Even with better casting, this thing would still be a mess. A few funny moments (mostly in the 1986 prologue) and a happy ending do not a good film make. Sally Field, we like you, we really like you, but your movie stinks.
Rated PG-13, scattered profanity, some mature themes
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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