Girls, Girls, Girls!

Beautiful Girls

area theaters, starts Friday

IN THE SPIRIT of critical disclosure: Your reviewer spent a couple of days last spring on the Minneapolis set of Beautiful Girls, conducting research for an ill-fated feature article. The piece of noncelebrity journalism I'd been asked to write was conceived as a vérité drama about ordinary people like electricians and production assistants doing workaday jobs; it took shape once these people's duties seemed partially to involve suffering the wildly unprofessional behavior of stars; and was aborted after a set of on-location photos mysteriously failed to arrive in time for our deadline. (Film industry rule of thumb: Articles timed to the release of a film carry value as publicity; ones that aren't, or that could reflect negatively on the project, do not.)

In any case, I do believe this (mis)adventure contributed nothing to my opinion that Beautiful Girls is as stupid as its title. If anything, watching it in two forms--as a work in progress and as a completed movie--served as a reminder of how much hard labor is required to get any feature onto the screen, and also of how little that labor can count toward a movie's overall quality. By all accounts I heard, this three-month shoot was complicated by an uncharacteristic lack of snow in our hamlet, which had been selected through careful cost analysis and studies of regional weather patterns; this being the case, an Oscar-winning FX team from Wisconsin was hired to create snow from some 2 million total pounds of ice. Certainly, this feat alone proves that film is a collaborative medium--which isn't to discount the primacy of the auteur theory. Meaning that Girls may represent a triumph of snowmaking and other creative problem solving, but the movie's queasy message still amounts to this: Sleeping with another guy's wife might get you beaten up, but in the end you can still decide to love the one you're with--even though she might only be a 7-1/2 on a scale of 1 to 10.

From the beginning, Beautiful Girls sounded like a typical buddy movie that otherwise defied (and thus begged) simple categorization: Director Ted Demme, who graduated from Yo! MTV Raps to Who's the Man? and The Ref, had favored describing it as "Diner meets The Deer Hunter"; and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg once referred to it as "Tolstoy meets Jackie Collins." These may have been primary influences, although what the film ultimately resembles is a typical buddy movie crossed with a proprietary vision of women as objects to be coveted, traded, fought over, and (cue the happy ending) cherished. Rosenberg's acknowledged alter-ego is Willie (Timothy Hutton), a New York piano-bar musician who, after coming home to his blue-collar hometown in Massachusetts for a high-school reunion, meets two "beautiful girls": the local bartender's cousin from Chicago (Uma Thurman), and a relentlessly cute 13-year-old named Marty (Natalie Portman). Although one of Willie's friends reminds him that Marty was "a zygote when you were in seventh grade," he actually considers waiting for this precocious "heartbreaker-in-training" for five years until she's of legal age (insisting all the while, of course, that it's not a sexual thing).

The movie's other male characters are likewise grappling with serious commitment issues: Former stud-turned-snow remover Tommy (Matt Dillon) is dating the insecure Sharon (Mira Sorvino), but he's still stuck on his more alluring high-school sweetheart (Lauren Holly); and Tommy's business partner Paul (Michael Rapaport), the kind of guy who's so in love with centerfolds that he's named his dog "Elle Macpherson," is plagued by the fact that his longtime girlfriend Jan (Martha Plimpton) is "bangin'" the local butcher--and she's a vegetarian! On the set, the 31-year-old Rosenberg (who also penned the forthcoming guns & guys movie Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) told me that he'd once been engaged to a woman but "couldn't pull the trigger." Perhaps this explains why the movie reflects his belief that "women are like a different species--you have to deal with that and accept it." Whatever the case, the guys in Girls are single-mindedly devoted to finding the most "beautiful" mates they can, lest they turn out like the town's aging men who work all day and drink all night.

Beautiful Girls' sole virtue is its uncommon portrayal of working class characters; since the '80s, youth movies have functioned largely as how-to primers for budding yuppies. But the way Demme and Rosenberg signify their milieu is through the clichés of sepia-toned visuals (a nod to The Deer Hunter?), a soundtrack full of '70s and '80s AOR tunes, and lame comedic punchlines based on the male actors' shit-talkin', white B-boy Methodisms. No doubt the script's repeated references to supermodels and "retards" owe to someone's real life, but they're also meant to be funny--which gives this already unpleasant movie an even more disturbing edge. And while the bone thrown to nonsexist viewers is Rosie O'Donnell's weird monologue about how guys live for T&A to the detriment of "real, ordinary women," the movie is far more believable in the scene of its guys rating their girls in categories of "face, body, and personality." The point might be that these men are still high-schoolers in worldview if not age, although the scene doesn't seem to be played as critique.

When I first heard of Beautiful Girls, I wondered how a two-hour view of het romance from the male perspective could hope to include so many women characters. Well, let's take a roll call: Holly plays a slutty temptress whose come-ons must be overcome by the Dillon character; Portman functions as the last temptation of a seemingly closeted pedophile; Plimpton is deemed to be not worth one's effort; Thurman is incredibly attractive and therefore unattainable; Sorvino has an eating disorder; Annabeth Gish proves herself a good cook who also has a "great rack" and a "nice ass"; and O'Donnell, either because she's overweight or speaks her mind, is never once considered as a potential partner. By default, the sole bit of female characterization here comes when Thurman's character confesses that she dreams of having a boyfriend who'll say four words to her before she goes to sleep: "Good night, sweet girl." But of course--isn't that what all sweet girls want?

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