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'Beautiful' Is U-G-L-Y

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2000


    'Beautiful' Minnie Driver plays a ruthless beauty pageant contestant. (Photo by Suzanne Hanover/Hestination )
Let me note for the record that "Beautiful," a movie about a single mother's determined bid to win the Miss American Miss beauty pageant, marks Sally Fields's directorial debut.

And out of respect to family audiences that might enjoy reasonably spunky, sort of wholesome (give or take some strong language) entertainment about single mothering, beauty contest back-stabbing and a message about the importance of inner beauty, please don't let me stand in the way of a potentially enjoyable evening.

[Cue screechy sound of brutal gear changing.]

The reason I couldn't possibly stand in the way is because I'll be too busy running screaming into the night. Anything to get away from this insufferably cloying experience.

Guys, quick huddle here. If your girlfriend even suggests seeing this movie, you might want to consider these time-tested words: "Satan, go ye hence from the soul of my girlfriend. I shall not abide thy evil channeling."

Although Fields and screenwriter Jon Bernstein set out to make a peppy movie, full of bright little bouts of comedy, all of it centered around the vivacious Minnie Driver, there's

something amiss about the whole thing.

It wants to have the spark of a benign, independent movie but with the core values of a Hollywood mainstream release. It plunges into the chasm between.

Mona Hibbard (played at first by Colleen Rennison) has decided she's obsessed about winning beauty pageants. A very intelligent, precocious person, stuck with a one-dimensional white-trash mother and stepfather (who tries to abuse her as a child), she seeks escape in . . . winning beauty pageants? (Heavy message: It's not only sparkly teethed ditzes that compete in these things.)

An ugly duckling in her teen years, Mona (soon to be played by Driver) develops an expertise in winning ugly.

At one point, when she sees a contestant having trouble with a fiery baton, Mona sprays her mercilessly with fire extinguisher foam. Mona's living loveless, see. And in a Sally Fields-directed movie, she'll do anything to get people to Really Like Her.

Over the years, Mona works her way up to Miss Illinois, then enters the contest for the Big Kahuna: Miss American Miss. Unfortunately for her immediate goals, she has become a single mother.

She has a little daughter now and, even worse, little Vanessa is played by Hallie Kate Eisenberg, that garish monster-child that appears in those awful Pepsi-Cola commercials. The heartless Mona fobs Vanessa on to her childhood friend, Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams), so she won't be distracted – and so she can legally participate in the Miss American Miss competition.

"I can't concentrate with all the noise!" yells Mona, as surrogate Mom Ruby and Vanessa giggle their way through bedtime upstairs.

Can you say "issues"? When is Mona going to smell the over-sweetened, morally decaffeinated coffee? Mona, you're a mom, okay? Don't diss your little girl, even if she is a freak of nature. Yadda yadda yadda.

Even by its own chirrupy standards, "Beautiful" stumbles on its cheaply designed pumps. Driver's energies seem forced, rather than inspired. She throws herself into the role, but you can almost feel the agony of her efforts. And none of the performers has the comedic brightness required for a movie like this. They're medium-standard professionals, nothing more.

Kathleen Turner's small role as – get ready for a funny name – beauty pageant expert Verna Chickle, is best left to molder in this perfunctory sentence.

Worst of all, "Beautiful" fails at what could have been an unintentional breakthrough: to stop filmmakers from producing more of these infernal pageant movies. Despite the movie's shortcomings, there is little hope that we've seen the last of its ilk. There'll be more to come, people. Oh yeah, there'll be more.

Beautiful (PG-13, 113 minutes) – Contains obscenity and implications about child abuse.


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