Beautiful Girls Review
Directed by the late Ted Demme, who followed this film with, amongst others, Life and Blow, Beautiful Girls was a marked departure for Demme in being a gentle, romantic-comedy from a man who, as a producer at MTV, was responsible for Yo! MTV Raps, which was a daily magazine show that brought rap, hip-hop and R&B into suburban living rooms. Where rap music is routinely criticised for being misogynistic and image obsessed, Beautiful Girls simply sets out to tell us that beauty is to be found in all women and that, where it is not, it is surely the fault of he who is looking rather than she who is being looked at.
Beautiful Girls is nominally about Willie (Hutton) who returns to his home town of Knight's Ridge one snowy February for a class reunion, where he meets his old friends Tommy (Dillon), Paul (Rapaport) and Kev (Perlich), each one of whom find themselves in a unexpected position as they approach thirty, in that they are either alone or unable to commit to marriage within the relationships they have with their partners. Their problem, or one of many problems they have, is in the separation between what they imagine to be an ideal woman and the reality. Regardless of their age, these men are unable to reconcile the attraction they feel for the models who feature in Penthouse or in the posters on the walls of Paul's bedroom to the women who live around then in Knight's Ridge, who truly are the beautiful girls described in the title.
Where they find themselves is that Willie left his girlfriend alone in New York to come home to sort things out before either committing to marriage or walking away. Tommy must choose between his girlfriend, Sharon, or his ex-teenage sweetheart, Darian, who is now married to another man. Kev and Paul are alone, neither through choice, but Paul is trying desperately to get his ex-girlfriend back into his life but persists in going about it the wrong way.
Finally, Willie's life is complicated by finding that his father's old neighbours have moved on and his new neighbours have a smart, sassy and beautiful thirteen-year old daughter to whom he cannot help but feel attracted to. With his girlfriend now promising to come up for the school reunion, Willie must learn the lessons that will allow him and his friends to cross one of the final hurdles left before they can finally advance into adulthood.
What is startling about Beautiful Girls is that the film takes so much time to make a relatively simple point. It does so by first establishing the small town life to which Willie has returned and shows that these relationships are grounded in a series of everyday occurrences, making them all the more true because of it. When Willie returns to Knight's Ridge, he finds the town almost unchanged but for the absence of his mother, whose death some time before is still affecting his father and younger brother, both of whom have allowed their lives to become unfocused without the presence of a woman to guide them. Even in leaving his family home, Willie finds that his friends have fared little better - Kev is alone, Paul is obsessed both with his ex-girlfriend and the hope of one day meeting a supermodel, Tommy's life is complicated by Sharon and Darian and finally, Moe is married with children but is dragged away from his wife by his bachelor buddies. Instead of being portrayed as returning from New York with the wisdom that an urbane life ought to have given him, Willie is as hopeless as his old school buddies - he views Knight's Ridge as having answers that the city cannot provide but his family home holds nothing but the opportunity to get drunk every night for two weeks, during which time he hopes to find something on which to base his future relationship with Tracey (Gish). As the film begins with Willie buying a single ticket on a bus to Knight's Ridge with cash earned that night in tips from his job as a piano-player, such an enlightenment seems unlikely and the presence of his friends help little. It is only through the wise words of the surrounding women that Willie will learn all that he is required to know.
After so much detail to get to a formative point, Beautiful Girls is given shape by a brief conversation between Uma Thurman's Andera and Willie just over an hour into the film, with the two of them sitting in a wooden hut in the middle of a frozen lake and sharing a bottle of brandy. Andera has arrived in the small and snowy town and, in a single night in her cousin's bar, has begun asking Willie's friends some difficult questions about their future. Willie, still unsure of how he feels for Tracey, asks Andera if her boyfriend realises how lucky he is, getting, in Willie's words, to do things in bed with her every night. In return, Andera asks Willie if he has never considered that some men think the same of him regarding Tracey. The look on Willie's face suggests that not once has this thought ever passed through his mind and from that point on, Beautiful Girls lays bare the truth behind the men's relationships with their wives, girlfriends and ex-partners, turning aside the male point of view to reveal the strength and the care the women show for one another and how it is only when they wish to do so, do they let the men back into their lives.
The most complex relationship in the film is not between any of the adult members of the cast but in the affection shown between Willie and Marty (Portman) - a man of twenty-nine and a young girl of thirteen. Never once will it cross your mind that this is in any way a relationship akin to that between Humbert Humbert and Lolita as the attraction felt by both Willie and Marty seems non-sexual and, therefore, less threatening but there is still the look in Willie's eyes that he knows what he is doing is wrong but is unable to hide how he feels for this young girl. What Demme and writer Scott Rosenberg manage to do is to structure the film from Willie's point of view - we see Portman play a girl who is knife-sharp, confident, attractive, funny and, best of all, has a real gift with words who sees through Willie and his friends, mocking them at an ice-skating rink. Despite Marty telling Willie that she has, "an old soul" and regardless of how perfect she might appear to be to Willie, her age makes her as out of reach as the supermodels are to Paul, as a porn star is to Kev, as Andera is to all of them and as Darian, stuck in a marriage she will not leave, is to Tommy. Willie, despite feeling jealous of Marty talking to a twelve-year old male school friend, knows that to do anything with Marty would be utterly wrong other than to do what he eventually does - he tells her to stay in touch because she will do amazing things in the future and he wants to know what these are. That this moment coincides with Willie's brother and father showing him through their actions just how highly they think of Tracey only reinforces the point that Beautiful Girls is trying to make. Really, this only leaves Marty to part from the movie, just as Willie leaves town, with a devastating one-liner directed at Paul just as she is being asked if it's true that she is the neighbourhood Lolita. Like Willie, you leave the film wanting to know what happened next to Marty.
Beyond this, the acting is superb throughout with Hutton doing a good job in the lead role but barely rising above a strong cast in support. Natalie Portman, on the other had, is the only one of the entire film who really stands out with her portrayal of Marty capturing her character's youth and immaturity when surrounded by her school friends as well as her sense of being older than her years when dealing with Willie but never letting him or us forget that she is only thirteen. Portman also does well in showing the sense of disappointment as Tracey arrives to take Willie back to New York, showing that her first love has gone and left her and she's not yet fourteen - a great performance and once Star Wars is out of her system, it will be interesting to see Portman attempt a role that is more emotionally demanding than Queen Amidala.
Finally, it is worth mentioning Scott Rosenberg's script, which is funny and warm-hearted if lacking any real poignancy or sense of sadness - somehow you know everything will right itself in the end. If it has a fault it is that some of the dialogue can be a little too obviously written by a scriptwriter keen to impress the audience with snappy one-liners and no one sequence is more at fault than Rosie O'Donnell's funny but unnatural monologue on Penthouse and the unlikely expectations that men have as regards how women look.
Being a low-key film, Beautiful Girls features few effects shots, little camera trickery and no experimentation with film types but is one of the most beautiful transfers this reviewer has yet seen. It achieves this by simply being wonderfully filmed and, with no extras on the disc, allows as much capacity as necessary to be given over to the film. Each shot is composed with care and consideration with a camera that rarely moves, observing the action from a distance rather than participating, which allows a sense of stillness that accentuates the season in which the film has been set as well as the affording the viewer a look at the turmoil within the lives of these characters.
In terms of the film, it has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
Much as it may seem that a 5.1 surround soundtrack would seem out of place in such a gentle, low-key film, it does work very well with the rear speakers used to provide an ambience in which the dialogue sits firmly at the front. At times, this effect is barely noticeable but when it works well, such as in Stinky's bar or Tommy's birthday party, it's unobtrusive and subtle but very effective. Otherwise, this is primarily a film driven by strong dialogue, which is distinct above the background noise.
In terms of the music used in the film, Demme, along with his wife Amanda Scheer, also known as Amanda Scheer-Demme, who acted as music consultant on Beautiful Girls, made some wise choices with the highlight being a rendition of Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline around a barely in-tune piano in a bar, something that will make you think twice about your preconceived ideas regarding the singer. As well as this performance, sung and played by the cast, there is an appearance by long-forgotten US indie band The Afghan Whigs as well as a well-timed and hilarious use of Jethro Tull.
There are no extras and with the death of Ted Demme one week after the release of this DVD, we are never going to get a director's commentary. Otherwise, it is unlikely that any making-of exists in the archives nor was the film so successful as to justify the cost of producing anything now so this release is likely to be as good as Beautiful Girls on DVD will get.
This is a wonderful film - warm, gentle, funny and awfully tender in its portrayal of a group of men and women who are approaching the age of thirty. Sure, the film is built on numerous cliches - the guy coming back home to sort out his problems but finds his old buddies having problems of their own, the new woman in town who stirs things up for the locals, the sense that men are drifting into their thirties without a plan as the women stand by helplessly but unafraid to dump the lot of them and move on - but it brings these together in such an easy and relaxed manner that, to your heart at least, it will appear fresh. Beautiful Girls is well worth tracking down now that this DVD is available in sales priced as low as £4.99 - highly recommended.