By Stacey Richter
WHEN BEAUTIFUL GIRLS was over, the friend who I'd gone with turned to me and said, "I hated it." I said I hated it too. Then she said she was disgusted. I said yes, that was the exact word I was searching for. We were shocked; she and I rarely agree on movies.
The strange thing was, Beautiful Girls wasn't such a badly made film. It's a character-driven drama about male camaraderie and boy/girl relationships, in the same vein as Barry Levinson's Diner. It has no explosions, weddings, stunts or MacGuffins--a lot to recommend it, as far as I'm concerned. (Okay, maybe there was one stunt.) I think what disgusted my friend and me about Beautiful Girls was what it had to say about men and women. The film served up a picture of a world where tortured men bond with one another while women wait around pouting, hoping their guys will commit.
Beautiful Girls is the story of Willie Conway (Timothy Hutton), a city boy who returns to his small hometown to ponder his future. He can't decide if he should marry his girlfriend or hold out for someone he likes better. So he hangs out with his lovably alcoholic buddies (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and waits for a decision to come to him. While he waits, he observes his friends as they mistreat and harass the women they love.
Eventually Uma Thurman turns up, in the role of Andera, the perfect girl all the buddies want. (She rejects each of them, but not without first dispensing good advice to all, a sort of hot-fox Jiminy Cricket.) All the men are waiting for the ideal "beautiful girl" to grace their lives; meanwhile, the women are stuck waiting for the men to grow up.
The ensemble cast has some great actors in it; notably Noah Emmerich and Mira Slovino (who were both in Woody Allen's latest film) as well as Martha Plimpton and the great, underrated Max Perlich. Beautiful Girls has 13 principal cast members, so some of the parts are bound to be underwritten, but the women's roles are given particularly short shrift. The female characters tend to be treated as tools to the development of the men--in general, they don't seem as real or as round as the guys. The exception is Marty, the little girl next door, played by 13-year-old Natalie Portman. This part is both fully written and amazingly well acted. Natalie Portman is so talented it's scary--she's absolutely charming and magnetic, like a teeny-bopper version of Audrey Hepburn.
I find it odd, though, that the only fully drawn female character in a movie with half a dozen roles for adult women is that of a 13-year-old girl, especially since Beautiful Girls declares it's about "relations between the sexes." There's a kind of nostalgic yearning at work in Scott Rosenberg's screenplay--a yearning for the very fantasy he's trying to criticize. Through the course of the film, the lesson most of the guys learn is that the women they have are already the "beautiful girls" they desire; that real girls can be dream girls. And yet, in his screenplay, Rosenberg neglects to endow most of his female characters with personhood. When Willie's girlfriend Tracy (Annabeth Gish) arrives from New York, she comes on like some perky counter-scrubber in a TV commercial; she's shockingly blank, and through no fault of Gish. That's the way her part is written. (The only thing we really learn about her is that she likes to have her boyfriend drive her car.) Only the most innocent or beautiful of the female characters--13-year-old Marty and the breathtaking Andera--have a sense of individuality and depth. The other women have no life except in relation to their husband's or boyfriend's.
Is that what the promotional literature means when it says this movie is about "relations between the sexes"? I don't think so. This film acts like it's aiming high; it seems to want to deliver wisdom about the complexity of love, but instead it offers the same kind of flat generalities about men and women that stand-up comics love so dearly. (Men cruise the channels; women like to pick a show.) Beautiful Girls presents a whole town mired in such Clichés. It reminds me of Newt Gingrich's comment about the difference between men and women: Women like to sit at desks all day while men have an itch to get outside and hunt giraffes. I mean, can you imagine Newt Gingrich running around after a giraffe? Please.
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