[Screen It]

(2000) (Minnie Driver, Joey Lauren Adams) (PG-13)

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Drama/Comedy: A young and ambitious, but self-centered woman tries to fulfill her lifelong dream of winning a national beauty pageant, no matter who she steps on while doing so.
Mona Hibbard (MINNIE DRIVER) is a young and ambitious, but self-centered woman who's spent her entire life trying to be someone through winning various beauty pageants. Although her mother, Nedra (LINDA HART) and her man friend, Lurdy (BRENT BRISCOE), didn't support Mona when she was a teen, she did receive help and encouragement from Verna Chickle (KATHLEEN TURNER), a former beauty queen and local talent trainer.

Now the latest Miss Illinois, Mona is poised to enter the Miss American Miss beauty pageant. With the help of her best friend, Ruby (JOEY LAUREN ADAMS), whose young and feisty daughter, Vanessa (HALLIE KATE EISENBERG), is decidedly less enthusiastic about the whole matter, Mona sets out to win the crown. Several obstacles stand in her way, however, including Joyce Parkins (LESLIE STEFANSON), a onetime competitor and current TV reporter who's determined to ruin Mona's life.

Of course, there are the other contestants, including Lorna, Miss Texas (BRIDGETTE WILSON) and Wanda Love, Miss Tennessee (KATHLEEN ROBERTSON), but Mona is more concerned about getting good PR and her mother's support. When she ends up having to take care of Vanessa for an extended time as the pageant begins, however, Mona finds herself facing the biggest choices and challenges of her life.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
While you have to admire those who strive to better themselves by stretching their wings, so to speak, and try their hand at new professions, sometimes it seems best to follow the old adage, "Do what you do best." The great Michael Jordan discovered that when he tried to make a go of it playing baseball and discovered that his impressive talent didn't transfer that well from the court to the diamond.

If there's any group of people who can be labeled as "job hoppers," it's those in the movie industry. While some such changes are natural progressions up the industry ladder just like any other business and many of the new "employees" are quit successful in their new line of work, others make the move without the necessary skills and/or smarts to handle their new occupation.

Those who try their hand at directing are usually the ones who fall into that latter grouping, and realize that life as a writer, cinematographer, actor or actress, etc. wasn't that bad and that helming a feature film is a bit harder than it looks. Considering how long actress Sally Field has been in the business and never stepped behind the camera, one would assume that she had happily accepted her role in the business and place in the world, content with her two Oscar wins (for "Norma Rae" and "Places in the Heart") and legions of fans worldwide.

Unfortunately, three plus decades of seeing someone else's name on the director's chair apparently proved too enticing for the 54-year-old actress who, after helming "The Christmas Tree" and an episode of HBO's "From The Earth To The Moon" for the small screen, has decided to move on to the silver screen with "Beautiful," her feature film debut. While it's certainly too early to pass judgment and one film certainly doesn't make or break a career - particularly considering that even the best directors have had their misses and flops amongst their otherwise stellar careers -- we wouldn't recommend that Field give up her day job just yet.

That's because "Beautiful" is, well -- how shall I put it delicately - it's rather ugly. An odd and disjointed mixture of satire, straight comedy and syrupy melodrama, the film simply doesn't work and isn't likely to be wearing any box office or Oscar crowns anytime in what will certainly be its short theatrical lifespan.

The underlying premise -- regarding a beauty pageant contestant who will do anything to win but eventually learns that she's going after the wrong goal - may not be terribly original, but at least it has some potential. One could imagine the story unfolding any number of ways, such as in a dark fashion as was the case with "To Die For" (where Nicole Kidman slithered up the TV industry ladder), or in a goofy satire like "Drop Dead Gorgeous" (that also focused on the pageant industry).

Yet, Field can't seem to make up her mind which way to go - satire, comedy or drama - and Jon Bernstein's lame and predictable screenplay doesn't help matters (no real big surprise as his only other writing credit is the awful 1998 Jerry Springer film, "Ringmaster").

Such a noncommittal approach leaves the film flailing about like a pageant contestant who's stumbling across the stage after breaking her heel and having her bathing suit top fall off. As a result, the satirical moments - such as Mona nearly always wearing her sash and/or crown and singing the theme song from "Beaches" to a pregnant woman in a grocery store to console her during labor - are neither scathing nor funny enough to work.

On the other hand, at least they're not as unbearable as the dramatic moments that have that "touchy feely" aura written all over them, but nonetheless fail to engage the viewer, let alone moisten their eyes or necessitate the use of one's hanky. One can easily see the dramatic path down which the story is headed, and the film's big moments and revelations feel nothing short of contrived, predictable and/or unrealistic.

Although the film's episodic nature is partly to blame, much of the problem is also due to the way in which the protagonist is drawn and ultimately portrayed by the usually charming and charismatic Minnie Driver ("Return to Me," "Good Will Hunting"). While her character is presumably supposed to be cold, calculating and steadfastly determined in her ambition (but with a soft spot lurking just underneath the surface), the filmmakers don't take her far enough to make audiences recoil from her actions, laugh at her silliness or sympathize with her plight.

In short, we neither like nor care about her character - a near fatal flaw for any film, let alone a weak one like this - and don't necessarily buy what she does or doesn't do during the story. Consequently, when she hits the part of the script where she's supposed to grow as a human being, we don't root for her success as a contestant or a person.

Unfortunately, the film's supporting performances don't help matters much. While some viewers might easily tire of Joey Lauren Adam's high-pitched voice, she's actually a decent actress ("Big Daddy," "Chasing Amy"), but the script doesn't give her much room in which to operate and it then ultimately removes her in a terribly contrived plot development.

A little bit of Hallie Kate Eisenberg ("Bicentennial Man," "Paulie"), however, goes a long way and her character precariously borders on being utterly obnoxious (from both a precocious and irritating fashion) throughout the whole film. On a side note, the mere presence of her character is also extremely contrived - considering the lengths to which the protagonist goes to insure her various pageant entries where motherhood is a decidedly big no-no - and only leads to the film's predictable and completely unrealistic, "feel good" conclusion.

The rest of the characters - the other contestants, a revenge-minded TV reporter (in a less than imaginative, sitcom type subplot) and the protagonist's mother - are similarly unlikable, while others, such as the one played by Kathleen Turner ("The Virgin Suicides," "Peggy Sue Got Married"), are preset for no good reason and do absolutely nothing for the film, other than bog it down.

Of course, Field manages to do that on her own just fine, with the final beauty pageant sequence particularly being horribly paced and executed, while other moments and plot developments are so odd and/or preposterous that the viewer will need a scorecard to keep track of any how many times they mentally note, "Huh?"

That will probably be a response shared by many viewers toward the overall film. While it has a handful of decent, cute or amusing moments, for the most part the film just isn't that good with both its lack of focus in what type of story it's trying to tell and a passel of unlikable characters unnecessarily belying its title. As such, "Beautiful" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed September 26, 2000 / Posted September 29, 2000

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