Directed by Sally Field
Cast: Minnie Driver, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Joey Lauren Adams, Colleen Rennison, Leslie Stefanson, Bridgette L. Wilson, Kathleen Robertson, Kathleen Turner, Linda Hart.
2000 113 minutes
Rated: (for profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 30, 2000.
Some people, no matter what they look like or who they are, have the incessant urge to always succeed, whatever the cost. Such is the case with 26-year-old Mona Hibbard (Minnie Driver), who has been practicing for the Miss American Miss pageant ever since she was 8. With her pretty, but unconventional looks, she has rarely won any of the contests she has entered, even going as far as sabotaging other contestants' routines simply to give her a better chance at winning. Growing up in a lower-class household with a white-trash mother and no-good stepfather, Mona hasn't exactly gotten the love that she has wanted, but who could blame the people around her when she is such a self-centered person herself?
At 19, Mona had a child out of wedlock, and instead of caring for her daughter, Vanessa (played at age 7 by Hallie Kate Eisenberg), her best friend Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams) has taken over as surrogate mother, unbeknownst to most people. The resemblance between Mona and Vanessa is uncanny to many, but they manage to brush such things off, as Mona remains to her daughter simply her "mother's" obnoxious best friend.
After winning Miss Illinois at the state competition, Mona finally has come thisclose to fulfilling her dream, being eligible for the Miss American Miss pageant. But then an unforeseen event strikes, and Mona, somewhat of a child herself, finds herself having to take care of Vanessa by herself, including taking her to the competition, despite mothers not being allowed to be runners in the contest.
"Beautiful," the feature film directorial debut of Sally Field, is, like Mona Hibbard, an unconventional comedy-drama that is surprisingly biting in its treatment of the central character, who is often distasteful and conceited. In an average film on the same subject, Mona would be presented as far more sympathetic just so she could be more likable for mainstream audiences, but director Field and screenwriter Jon Bernstein hold nothing back in showing how reprehensible someone can be simply to achieve a decidedly petty goal.
As Mona, the talented Minnie Driver (2000's "Return to Me") perfectly creates this person who is unknowingly a monster on the outside, a side effect of never experiencing love and compassion before in her own family. Mona is not always likable, but there are very few actresses who could aid as a bridge between such a difficult character and the viewer, and Driver is luckily one of them. Moreover, as the film progresses and she begins to experience what she has missed by having her sights set on only one thing, Mona gradually does become more compassionate, and the catharsis she finally has is effectively done in the climax.
Best known as the Pepsi girl who imitates the likes of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, young Hallie Kate Eisenberg (1999's "Bicentennial Man") is very good and thankfully not unctuous as the strong-willed, confused Vanessa, who Mona discovers possesses many of the same traits she did as a child. Eisenberg and Driver work well together, and the familial relation between the two is believable. Meanwhile, Joey Lauren Adams (1997's "Chasing Amy") is her usual impressive self, even when her character's motivations are a little fuzzy and you unavoidably question why she would stay friends with someone like Mona for all these years.
In supporting roles, Leslie Stefanson (1999's "The General's Daughter"), while doing a professional job, is more of an annoyance than an interesting character, as a news reporter out to expose the many unwholesome things Mona has done over the years. Kathleen Turner is even more wasted as beauty pageant expert Verna Chickles, and it is unfortunate to see her return to such a throwaway role after her wonderful work in this year's best film (so far), "The Virgin Suicides." As fellow Miss American Miss contestants, both Bridgette L. Wilson (1999's "House on Haunted Hill," but when did she start getting credited with the middle initial?) and Kathleen Robertson (1999's "Splendor") are surprisingly memorable, as a poignant twist in the story's conclusion exposes both of them as being exactly like Mona, something she herself fears.
Along with some extremely funny moments and the occasional insightful character moments, "Beautiful" is an entertaining, if flawed, motion picture all the way up until the disastrous final five minutes, which turn up the self-appreciation and cheeseball meters so high that it becomes sickening. The sudden shift in tones in that last stretch of running time is both jarringly and seemingly out of another movie altogether, and it largely undermines the integrity of the film as a whole. "Beautiful" is the type of movie whose basics have been traveled many times before, but it is done well for the most part. Its successfulness in the first 105 minutes only makes its stay of execution in the finale all the more depressing.
©2000 by Dustin Putman