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It's 'Do or Die in 'Blow Dry'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2001


    'Blow Dry' Alan Rickman, Natasha Richardson, Rachel Griffiths and Josh Hartnett in "Blow Dry."
It is damnable stuff. To begin with, somebody always has yours and you are stuck with someone else's so that it never looks right on you, and then, unless you have powerful concentrations of estrogen in your body, it goes away. Millions – billions, possibly trillions! – are spent to get it to be something that it isn't – blond, straight, curly, greaseless, red, sleek, smooth or simply there again. You might as well flush that money down the bathroom thingy. The stuff will always betray you. That is what it does. That is all it does.

Hair! Aaarrrghh! Hair!

Into this eternal miasma of anguish – oh, the humanity! – comes the movie "Blow Dry," which might be described as the "Godfather" of all true hair movies. (There are at least two others, "Shampoo" and something last year about a Scottish hairdresser in L.A. that was so awful I've repressed the title. If you know it, please don't bother me with it.) Among other things, "Blow Dry" is a family saga, full of ancient enmities, betrayals, suffering and bitterness, pain and death and large quantities of gel. It might as well have been called "Of Mousse and Men."

Now here's the funny part. One of the antagonists is a virulently ambitious fop with exquisite if twitchy verbal skills, a cheater, a liar, a user, a manipulator, a fabulously colorful scam artist. And one of the stars is the great Alan Rickman, who in the past has played virulently ambitious fops with exquisite etc. But it's not Rickman in that role, it's the British comic Bill Nighy.

Rickman is in the other half of the movie, where he can only be described as the Don Corleone of the sundered Allen clan. He plays a chap named Phil Allen, a gifted stylist and would-be champ hairdresser in the English national hairstyling competition, who was devastated when his beloved wife left him for his model and the two women set up their own hair salon in the next building over. He now represses his talent, claims merely to be a barber and has withdrawn from life with ample quantities of Scotch and self-hatred. He hasn't spoken to either woman in 10 years.

Astonishingly for such bitter content, the movie itself is generally great fun, if moored somewhat shakily between the treacly and the tragic. I am sad to report that it features that most desperate of writer's confabulations, an impending fatal disease. Oh, and it gets worse: There's also a plucky, life-affirming grandma (Rosemary Harris) who issues platitudes cut with bromides, or bromides cut with platitudes, in an attempt to buck up the spirits of someone who is facing cells run amok.

Briefly, the Allen clan – that's Dad the barber and his son, a mortuary assistant named Brian (American actor Josh Hartnett) and his former wife, Shelley (the fabu Natasha Richardson) and her lover, Sandra (Rachel Griffiths) – have taken sorry refuge from the world in the Yorkshire town of Keighley. Then that town is improbably selected to host the hairstyling tournament, a sort of knights' joust with blow-dryers and scissors.

The reigning champ is Phil's old adversary Ray Roberts (Nighy), the foppy one, who is all attitude and mendacity and feels an entitlement to win the treble – a threepeat, as we Yanks would call it. Much of the incidental humor is based on culture clashes as the cornball Keighleyites stare gape-mouthed and stupefied as the elite of the Salon Round Table from across Great Britain show up in Rolls-Royces under hairdos so lacquered they seem more like topiary than gunked-up protein clottage. This is an amusing backdrop.

Of course the drama follows expected lines: Can Phil forgive ex-wife Shelley and her lover, Sandra, and, with them and Brian, form a team to defeat the sniggering, posturing, arrogant Ray, as well as several other "Birdcaged" stereotypes of gay hairdressers? A little Romeo-and-Juliet subplot is worked in by the two Americans in the cast, Hartnett and the unbearably beautiful Rachael Leigh Cook, who appears as Ray's daughter and hair model.

The competition is engineered along sure-fire sports movie formulas, with first one team, then the other, then a third, edging ever so slightly ahead, as cheating, illness, sabotage and divine inspiration help or hinder the competitors. I should also mention that the supermodel Heidi Klum has a role of virtually no dramatic importance whatsoever but has lodged eternally in the pitiful Hunter imagination. Possibly it will so lodge in yours.

The film, derived from a play by Simon Beaufoy, famous for "The Full Monty," never quite overcomes its theatrical limitations. It was directed by Paddy Breathnach at less than breathnach pace. In form, it's one of those "professional playwright" things, where you can feel the manipulation of drama school recipe, with plot and subplot, local color, carefully planted "reveals" (that's what they call them), all syncopated oh-so-tidily over three acts.

Another troubling aspect may bother the British more than us. This cast is classically educated and ultra-refined in skill and stagecraft (with the exception, I suppose, of Yankees Hartnett and Cook); it could just as convincingly put on a performance of "Oedipus the King" or "Lear" or "Faustus." They're slumming here, having cheap fun with lower-middle-class dialect (the verb "were" is used without regard to tense or subject), and the slightest whiff of condescension clings to it all. It also seems like spending a million dollars' worth of talent on two hundred bucks' worth of script.

But still: It's fun. Hey, it's almost spring, Rickman is fabulous and so is Richardson. The kids are all right. Nighy makes a great comic villain; as a dowdy mayor seduced ever so incrementally into the glam stylings of high-hair culture, Warren Clarke is continually funny. And Heidi Klum alone will melt the snows of yesteryear.

Blow Dry (122 minutes) is rated R for brief nudity and adult situations.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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