directed by Sally Fields
(Destination, 2000)

In the stereotypical world of beauty pageants, contestants have a pretty good idea of what's expected of them: Long, Texas-sized hair. No radical platforms. Some good double-sided tape so their bathing suits won't ride up.

In Beautiful, her big-screen directorial debut, actor Sally Fields should have a pretty good idea of what's expected of her, too. Too bad she chose a movie that can't decide which contestant it wants to be: The one that goes for the laughs, or the one that goes for the sentimental revelation.

The one that goes for the laughs does OK, treading the familiar ground of back-stabbing beauty queens, insincerity, egos and insecurity. Anyone who's watched half a dozen pageants could have developed most of the jokes brainstormed here by writer Jon Bernstein, who also gets the credit or blame for 1998's Ringmaster, starring Jerry Springer. And the contestant who goes for sentimental revelation might want to learn a little subtlety instead of broadly hinting 20 minutes into an 90-minute movie what that revelation will be.

A movie that concentrated on one or the other -- and, with Beautiful, it should have been the humor -- would have maybe made the first cut of finalists. But the pathos takes away from the humor, and the humor falls weakly when the tears begin. Minnie Driver is Mona, a small-town Illinois girl who dreams of being rescued from an awful home situation by the boost of a beauty pageant. Joey Lauren Adams is her best friend Ruby, who mothers Mona and cleans up her messes long after most friends would tell Mona to grow up.

When Mona, on the verge of some pageant success, finds herself pregnant, Ruby saves the day. And at the next scene, seven years later, we see Ruby and a little girl who looks remarkably like Mona but calls Ruby "Mom" cheering on their favorite dysfunctional beauty pageant contestant. And Mona, despite years of sabotaging other contestants and sleeping her way to the crown, wins the chance to represent Illinois at the Miss American Miss pageant.

Swirling around this little trio are Joyce Parkins (Leslie Stefanson) as the victim of Mona's early sabotage who's now a crusading reporter bent on ripping away the crown, Clara (Herta Ware), a nursing home resident whose suicide lands Ruby in jail on the eve of the big pageant, and a host of contestants who are there either to bedevil Mona or befriend her. Too much, too much.

The ubiquitous Pepsi Cola girl, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, is Vanessa, the little girl who loves Ruby as her mother but suspects there's a tie to Mona no one's admitting.

Will Mona ever grow up? Will she acknowledge Vanessa? If she does, what happens to martyr-like Ruby? You can see the forced happy ending coming from the far end of the pageant runway, and it's remarkably rushed and unsatisfying. It's supposed to be a feel-good kind of thing, but Vanessa's not confused or traumatized by the truth, Mona doesn't feel too bad about her seven years of lies, and Ruby? Ruby watches the pageant and the happy ending from prison.

Individually, they've all done better -- Driver in just about everything else, Adams in Chasing Amy, Eisenberg in her movie-house advertisements for Pepsi (which shows up in enough scenes to get a credit of its own).

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 10 November 2001

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