[Screen It]

(2001) (Alan Rickman, Natasha Richardson) (R)

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Comedy: As a prestigious hairdressing championship blows into their small town, the members of a former award winning team try to sort out their feelings toward one another as they reluctantly agree to enter the contest.
It's a big day in the small town of Keighley, England when it's announced that the prestigious National British Hairdressing Championship has chosen their quaint Yorkshire municipality for their annual contest. Tony (WARREN CLARKE), the town's mayor, is obviously excited and wants local barber Phil Allen (ALAN RICKMAN) to represent them in the championship.

That's the last thing that Phil - a former champion himself - wants to do as he hasn't competed since his wife, Shelley (NATASHA RICHARDSON), ran off with his model, Sandra (RACHEL GRIFFITHS), on the night before a contest some ten years ago, leaving him to raise their son, Brian (JOSH HARTNETT), who's now joined his dad in the hair cutting business.

As the various contestants arrive in town - including the current championship team of Phil's old adversary, Ray Roberts (BILL NIGHY), his estranged daughter/model, Christine (RACHEL LEIGH COOK), and their assistant, Louis (HUGH BONNEVILLE) - the locals all react in differing ways.

Shelley, who's just discovered that her ongoing battle with cancer is a losing one, wants to enter the competition one last time. Brian, whose interest in Christine now stems from a romantic angle, also wants to compete, hoping that he can stop practicing on the cadavers at the local funeral home.

As the competition begins with Shelley and Brian reluctantly brought together as a team, the contestants go through the various rounds of the championship that soon stir feelings within Phil and eventually lead to reconciliation within his family.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Of all the physical attributes that humans possess, their hair seems to be the most important to many of them. While the styles may change from one generation to the next, people and the media seem obsessed with the cylindrical, keratinized and often pigmented filaments that grow from their scalps.

Women with a long, full body of hair are considered sexy, blonds are supposed to have more fun and many bald or balding men - notwithstanding Telly Savalas, Yul Brynner and Patrick Stewart - are considered less attractive, youthful and even virile to others.

All of that, the graying factor that both sexes must eventually face, and the fact that those darn strands just keep growing keeps those in the hair business both busy and profitable. Many men, however, see their hair and care for it as something that needs to be managed, like changing the oil in their car. After all, men go to barbers (a tough, medieval sounding term) to have their hair cut. Most women, on the other hand, go to beauticians, stylists and hairdressers to get their "do" styled or arranged, and obviously place a great deal more importance on their final look and who gives it to them.

Accordingly, barbers are like mechanics, while beauticians and stylists are more akin to artists. Not surprisingly then, there are contests and championships for the latter such people, complete with inflated egos, related theatrics, intense competitiveness and even reported sabotage and other unscrupulous acts.

If that sounds like the basis or potential for a documentary or even a comedy, you're right. Director Kevin Allen and screenwriters Craig Ferguson and Sacha Gervasi did it in 2000 with "The Big Tease," the tale of a Scottish hairdresser who travels to Los Angeles and does what he can to enter such a competition.

Whereas that film took a faux documentary approach, however, this week's release of "Blow Dry" goes for the "dramedy" route, mixing comedy and drama in telling a somewhat similar story, and with likewise similarly mediocre results. Set in England, the film tries taking something of a working class angle on the story along the lines of what "The Full Monty" did with male stripping. While that may sound like a cheap attempt at putting a fresh spin on someone else's acclaimed work, the perpetrator this time around is none other than Simon Beaufoy ("Among Giants"), the Oscar nominated scribe of "The Full Monty."

An occasionally amusing and amiable, but rarely outrageous or clever look at yet another hairdressing competition, this picture adds a more human/familial subplot to the main story. Of course, anyone who's seen more than a few movies in their life will automatically realize that the contest is just superficial sheathing around the real heart of the film.

Unfortunately, that ticker's pulse isn't particularly strong, and while Beaufoy's story thankfully mostly avoids any horrendous maudlin or melodramatic moments regarding the estranged family and terminal cancer related bits, director Paddy Breathnach ("I Went Down") overuses both Patrick Doyle's score and the odd use of old, period songs (for a film set in 2000) to drive home the emotional sense and points of most of the scenes, rather than let the material do that on its own. Of course, the reason he does that is that the material doesn't really have what it takes to exude such resonance by itself.

Beyond the prior setup of a lesbian affair breaking up a marriage and stopping a hairdresser's competitive run, the film never manages to offer much of anything that viewers won't see coming long before it arrives on the screen. For good or bad, the filmmakers mostly opted to shy away from the quaint and quirky small town characters and their subsequent behavioral reactions to their staid lifestyles and environs suddenly being disrupted - something that's usually present in small, foreign-set films such as this. Thus, most of the weight falls onto the shoulders of the characters playing the various contestants and the one central family.

Unfortunately, and unlike the "mockumentary" about dog show competitions, "Best in Show," the championship participants here really aren't that interesting. Bill Nighy ("Still Crazy," "Fairy Tale: A True Story") and Hugh Bonneville ("Notting Hill," "Mansfield Park") show up as the snobbish champion and his assistant, but beyond providing for the obligatory antagonistic roles, don't really add much to the proceedings. The rest of the participants are barely shown, let alone introduced, except for model turned actress Heidi Klum (making her feature film debut) who shows up as a wife/model who fools around with her brother-in-law in a bit that never really goes anywhere.

Instead, the film focuses most of its attention on the story regarding the town's resident barber/sourpuss played by Alan Rickman ("Dogma," "Die Hard") and his estranged, now lesbian wife, played by Natasha Richardson ("Nell," the remake of "The Parent Trap") who has cancer. I suppose the whole bit about her leaving him in the past for his former model - played by Rachel Griffiths ("Hilary and Jackie," "Muriel's Wedding") is supposed to be funny and/or dramatic from a spark/tension-inducing angle, but neither is particularly effective or intriguing. There's very little doubt about how that part of the story - or the final championship - will unfold, and thus most viewers will probably feel indifferent to most of what occurs.

That includes a potential budding romance between the characters played by Rachel Leigh Cook ("Get Carter," "She's All That") and Josh Hartnett ("Here on Earth," "The Virgin Suicides"), who are presumably supposed to be in something of a Romeo and Juliet type scenario since their fathers are long-time, scissor-holding adversaries. While the two are nice to look at and do have some chemistry together, their story doesn't get enough attention and it's too obvious that these American performers were dropped into this otherwise British production in a hopeful effort to lure in American teenagers to see the film.

Overall and despite its problems and similarities to the far funnier "The Big Tease," the film isn't laborious to sit through, but one only wishes that it had a bit more oomph throughout to make it stand out. Despite the extravagant hairdos and contest outfits - that aren't funny although that seems to be the intention - and the potential, however limited, of showcasing a hairdressing competition in a small England town, the film is the equivalent of receiving a haircut at any of those low-end, national hair cutting chains. The finished product posters may be alluring, and the cut may look promising while it's occurring, but in the end, you probably won't recommend the mediocre results to your friends. "Blow Dry" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 5, 2001 / Posted March 7, 2001

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