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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2002

One woman's quest for the holy tiara


Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Sally Field
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 26 at Cine Switch in Ginza

"Take two aspirin and a big swig of Jack Daniel's before seeing 'Beautiful' " is the advice my doctor gave me. OK, he didn't say that, but I wish he had. It would have saved me a major migraine, and at least, under the influence, I might have managed to sit comfortably through this nearly two-hour feature.

News photo
Minnie Driver and Hallie Kate Eisenberg in "Beautiful"

It's not that "Beautiful" is a bad movie per se -- just the cinematic equivalent of a staticky sweater that rubs you the wrong way. Directed by Sally Field, this picture delves into the inexplicable but fundamental need that women have to be beautiful. Instead of pursuing and/or satirizing this though, it swerves into the slow-lane themes of female friendship and motherhood, with everyone weeping into their hankies as mother hugs daughter and whispers, "I love you." Oh, boy. Pass me that bottle, please, and don't bother with the glass.

Minnie Driver is the centerpiece and driving force of this quest-for-beauty tale that dips occasionally into the occult. I mean, here is a woman who thinks nothing of setting fire to her rival's hand, or having a baby, palming it off onto her best friend, then ignoring the child altogether, or spreading offense everywhere, then turning all smiles in front of a reporter -- all this to win a beauty contest. This role isn't that of a villain, but more like that of a Vixen From Hell.

All her life, Mona (Driver) has wanted nothing else than to become Miss America Miss (I suppose they didn't want to cause confusion with the real Miss America pageant). Her thirst for the title is unquenchable, but she hardly knows her own motives. It could be because life with her shrewish mom (Linda Hart) and out-of-it stepdad Lurdy (Brent Briscoe) in small-town Illinois is unbearable. Still, the presence of her best friend Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams) is more than enough to make up for it. Ruby is Mona's biggest fan and staunch supporter of her every beauty-related endeavor. She doesn't mind putting Mona's needs and desires first, she's never offended by her friend's gigantic ego. And when Mona has a baby, Ruby is happy to adopt the girl as her own. By the time Vanessa (after former Miss America Vanessa Williams, of course) turns 7, Mona has become a beauty-circuit junkie, and Ruby is a responsible, loving, loyal adult, working as a nurse in a geriatric ward.

But when a patient commits suicide, Ruby is suspected of providing the sleeping tablets and is arrested. This is a huge blow to Mona, who has finally grabbed the Miss Illinois crown and is on her way to compete in the national biggie, the Miss America Miss Contest. How will she be able to function without Ruby? As Mona goes into crazed panic mode, Vanessa watches her with disgust and detachment and thinks, in a voice-over, "What a terrible woman. Thank God she's not my mother."

Mona is too distraught to notice, but with Ruby in prison, she has no choice but to take Vanessa to the contest, but if the judges ever discover Vanessa is hers, it will mean instant disqualification. So Mona leaves the poor kid confined in a hotel room while she poses for photographers and promotes her "cheerful, athletic image." But at night, it is Vanessa who soothes her insecurities and blues. And the more time they spend together, the closer Mona begins to feel to her daughter, whom she'd not given a single thought to all these years.

Strangely enough, these feelings override her joy at remaining on stage as one of the three most beautiful women in America. All her years of hard work are about to pay off in the form of a diamond tiara. But Mona can't take her eyes off Vanessa, sitting in the audience and waving her cute little hand. Hankie time.

Much more interesting than this drama are the backstage antics of the beauty-queen world, as depicted by Field, and so much of it is hair-raisingly ugly. As this film would have it, physical beauty is not a given or natural trait but must be worked at and schemed for relentlessly, and never mind whose hand one steps on -- or burns -- in the process.

The surprise is that Mona, who schemes harder than anyone, is hugely rewarded but never punished. Rather, the girl with the burn scars (a thankless role played by Leslie Stefanson) appears as a reporter out to spoil Mona's triumph, but it is she who winds up humiliated and ousted from the spotlights. What happened to evil getting its just desserts? Or all those warnings about how vanity never pays and pretty-is-as-pretty-does? But Mona in her wicked 5-inch heels gets it all, and drives away with with a brand-new Mercedes. One can only hope this is Field's way of making a statement about Hollywood.

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