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It Won't Win Miss Congeniality

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2000


    Beautiful Minnie Driver as Mona, the beauty queen beast, in "Beautiful."
Suzanne Hanover – Destination Films
Sally Field's "Beautiful" is a love story between a woman named Mona and her perfect mate: herself. It might be called a case study in Mona-mania.

Mona, played by Minnie Driver, yearns, as do all tyrants, to rule the world. Her chosen field, however, is not politics or war, but beauty. She wants to be that weepy, glistening, begowned mannequin who swoons down the aisle when some ancient croaker warbles, "There she is blah blah blah."

But there are problems: You know, if only those other damned little people – oh, her mother, her daughter, her best friend, other contestants, the human race – wouldn't get in the way, it would just be so much better for Mona.

Understand: The movie means for her to be hated, but . . . not that much. The problem is, after she is redeemed, you still hate her.

For sheer bravado, the movie sets some kind of record for the year and possibly the rest of the century, all 99 years and 3 months of it. It manages to find an almost pitch-perfect accumulation of ill-matched tones, sheer grotesquerie, near-heroic absurdity and self-canceling folly.

Worst of all, it's one of those movies where the ending completely invalidates what came before; I love it when they do that.

Mona's psychological underpinning – so transparent you wonder how come director and former flying nun Field hits you upside the head with it time after time after time – is that she was not loved as a child, so therefore she needs the artificial adoration of the judges and the applause for her self-esteem. Well, duh!

Young Mona (played in childhood by Colleen Rennison) is the product of a broken home, though it appears to me she broke it herself. Her tough-as-brass-bushings ma (Brittany Crutchfield in the movie's best performance) could care less about her, preferring to give her heart away to bad men, filtered cigarettes and daytime TV. As a means of petty revenge, Mona has turned insufferable, raising money on the hustle to pay for braces and charm school lessons, the latter taught by a character played by the force of nature named Kathleen Turner, who should be off playing Medea or Tallulah (was there a difference?).

Soon enough Mona joins her poor schoolmate Ruby's clan, a poor bunch that includes a dying grandma. Ruby is played by Joey Lauren Adams, who gets all the parts Renee Zellweger turns down, unless "Beautiful" is a megahit, in which case Renee Zellweger will get all the parts Joey Lauren Adams turns down. Soon Mona has taken over this passive grouping with her beauty craziness, even to the point of denying maternity of her out-of-wedlock child. Even when the child ages into a tyke called Vanessa (played by the Pepsi icon Hallie Kate Eisenberg, as in Bad Career Move, Kid), Mona remains obsessed with winning the Miss American Miss contest – as the real thing is thinly disguised. So the auburn, freckly Vanessa grows up thinking the pale, blond Ruby is her mother, not Ruby's best friend, auburn, freckly Mona.

Enough. Field, working from a screenplay by Jon Bernstein, crams in three or four more subplots, but she can never find a coherent tone, or a sense of unity among them all. She's probably at her best – relatively, and not all that good in the abstract – in depicting the cruelties of the beauty pageant lifestyle, which is treachery, compounded by deceit and twisted into pure pathology, hidden under a veneer of super-cute niceness. But Michael Ritchie did it much better years ago in "Smile," which remains the definitive beauty pageant treatment.

The lamest of the too many subplots involves Leslie Stefanson as a TV news hen who's trying to get the goods on Mona to advance her own career. Hmm, so the movie is asking: Which evil bitch are you rooting for? I suppose it expects you to choose Mona on the grounds that Driver is a bigger star than poor, blandly pretty Leslie Stefanson will ever be. I like a movie with sound values like that.

Then there's a grotesque subplot involving Ruby's arrest and incarceration on a homicide charge, which gets her conveniently out of the way for the movie's climactic sequence at the Miss American Miss pageant, then brings her back on the shabbiest of pretexts. Or wait, on no pretext at all. If there is a reason why she is let out of jail, it's still on the cutting room floor somewhere.

Sports fans may be drawn to the movie for a glimpse at Bridgette Wilson, Pete Sampras's fiance, who has been glimpsed sitting doughily and beautifully in the stands at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows this year. Peter won one and lost one, though to look at Wilson, who could tell? To look at her in this film, guess what, you still can't tell. Wilson plays Miss Texas, and one has to say that as a one-dimensional face who is as uninteresting as she is beautiful, Wilson turns in a superlative performance.

Almost nothing in "Beautiful" feels sincere; it's hardly ever funny, and too often tumbles to the naked emotion of country-western music without that music's powerful voice and rhythm to propel it toward the heart. Instead, it goes into the toilet.

Beautiful (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual suggestiveness.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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