‘Beautiful Girls’ not a pretty sight
By Richard von Busack
Elements always create a mood on screen. The sea represents untamed nature, the rain signifies sorrow, sunshine means passion. Snow always represents hominess, roots, those good, solid, old-fashioned values that seem to be eluding most of us somehow.
Tim (nephew of Jonathan) Demme’s Beautiful Girls takes place somewhere between Boston and Chicago in a snowy small town, and in fact the main characters work as snow-plowers. The movie isn’t about girls, beautiful or otherwise. It is instead about men as a tribe, about our lack of willingness to settle down, and to stay settled once we’ve committed. The men in Beautiful Girls are lured to trifling with women, but are eventually set straight, as if by the hand of God; Moe, the most reprehensible of the bunch, is even put in his place by a 13-year-old girl.
Like The Brothers McMullen, Beautiful Girls takes the serious matter of men’s fears of relationships and makes it the subject of unfunny satire. And no matter how strongly it endorses the goodness and rightness of men settling down to be dads, it, like The Brothers McMullen, portrays women as strange, even dangerous creatures: probably unknowable, decidedly unlikable.
In the lead, Matt Dillon is a ex-high school “legend”–legendary lover, the film seems to suggest. His name is Tommy aka “Birdman,” and he can’t choose between two women he’s seeing: either the one who is meant by the director to be right for him (Mira Sorvino, in full-bore Shelly Winters whine) or the reckless married woman who still wants him.
In from Boston on a visit is another member of the gang, Timothy Hutton, a lounge piano-player about to get a real job and settle down with his girlfriend Tracy back east. Spoiling for a final fling, Hutton also finds himself drawn to two different girls, Alieta (Uma Thurman), who is also visiting her relatives, and his dad’s neighbor girl Marty, an almost supernaturally precocious and flirtatious 13-year-old. This potentially illegal liaison is the sole bit of spice in the movie, but the flirtation with the underage girl is kept light and rather twittery. Too bad, because it was a chance for some heartfelt scenes instead of situation comedy; to a 13-year-old, life is high tragedy. For comedy relief there’s coarse Moe (Michael Rappaport), Dillon’s partner on the snow plow, a Joe Sixpack with centerfolds taped to his wall. Moe has lost his girlfriend (Martha Plimpton) from waiting too long to give her a ring and some babies.
Of the large cast, Dillon is easily the best; he’s an actor who can do more with tripe than a Spanish chef, and he’s also the best-looking character in the film. Too bad he has to play his last scenes covered with bruises (beaten up by an enraged husband; let it be a lesson to us all).
The moralistic qualities of Beautiful Girls are complemented by its awkward script. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg writes in a lot of different voices, but they all come out the same, whether little girl or beery reprobate. And he’s florid: “You don’t like this boozy after-hours musician banter,” says Hutton to Thurman right before offering to “pepper your belly with baby kisses.”
Thurman’s an almost allegorical character in Beautiful Girls. She seems to represent the spirit of monogamy, come to tempt the cast but ultimately to remind them to be faithful. She vanishes as mysteriously as she arrived. Equally inexplicable is an atrocious feminist scene, with Rosie O’Donnell lecturing Dillon and Rappaport about their idealization of Penthouse pets, much in the same tone as when she earlier warned a woman she’d get cobwebs in her womb if she didn’t land a man. In the lecture scene, O’Donnell tells the men to get used to her, because she is what a real woman looks like. No wonder they seek out fantasy–O’Donnell isn’t ugly, but nobody’s attractive when they’re braying.
But then everyone in Beautiful Girls looks as if they have a touch of the flu. Maybe they’re pouring absinthe at that folksy bar the characters all hang out at, as if waiting to enact a beer commercial. Everyone is distinctly green-tinted, or maybe it’s light reflected from the moss on the script. Beautiful Girls is the cinematic equivalent of spinach, in which the sincerity is piled as high as the snowdrifts.
From the Feb. 15-21, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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