Pop Culture Item Consumed: Beautiful Girls, Ted Demme’s rumination on young men facing the prospect of growing up and being not exactly graceful about it, like ducklings struggling across a highway. Beautiful Girls boasts an absolutely loaded cast with the chops to create an incredibly strong dramatic comedy in which the whole is far, far more than the sum of its parts. Everyone involved plays the role he or she was born to play, even actors who are usually incredibly annoying (Rosie O’Donnell alert!). I’ve never seen a more perfectly cast film, with Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Natalie Portman, Uma Thurman, Annabeth Gish, Mira Sorvino, Martha Plimpton, Max Perlich, Michael Rapaport, Rosie O’Donnell, Lauren Holly, David Arquette, and Noah Emmerich, not to mention talented character actors (and three-name wannabe serial killers) Pruitt Taylor Vince (the pharmacist from Mumford) and John Carroll Lynch (Norm from Fargo). Also: Greg Dulli and Afghan Whigs!
Beverage Consumed: The Sidecar, one of the few instances when I can find much use for brandy. Cognac, named for a French town in the region where it originates, is the filet mignon of brandies, and given that the Sidecar is basically all booze, this is not a place to skimp. For the same reason, Triple Sec will work as the mixer, but Cointreau or Grand Marnier is really the way to go. Hennessy is a fine cognac, but there are plenty of good ones, including such well known brands as Courvoisier and Rèmy Martin. The Sidecar is not a Boozehound favorite, but when I’m feeling nostalgic I like the old school, film noir sensation of shaking up a batch of Sidecars and settling into a tenth or twentieth viewing of a trusted favorite film.
To prepare a Sidecar, mix four parts cognac with two parts Cointreau and one part lemon juice, then stir over ice. Garnish with lemon peel, if desired. That’s it. This is one of the easiest “sophisticated” cocktails to make, but proceed with caution — cognac is apparently made from jet fuel and will fuck your shit up. It’s perfectly acceptable to back off the cognac to a one-to-one mix with the Cointreau, which results in a more citrusy, slightly less potent potable. (Many recipes call for this ratio anyway. Pussies.)
Summary of Action: While it is rare that words fail me — my day job depends on their not doing so — it is passing hard to do justice to the exquisite near-perfection of Beautiful Girls. Not only does Demme do magnificent work capturing image and tone, his realization of Scott Rosenberg’s rich, thoughtful screenplay is spot-on in nearly every instance. Rosenberg’s work is nothing short of dazzling, no gimme for the guy who gave us Con Air and Kangaroo Jack. On the other hand, Rosenberg was largely responsible for the adaptation of High Fidelity, not to mention the seriously underrated Things to Do in Denver When Your Dead. As mentioned above, Beautiful Girls benefits from a fortuitous meeting of excellent direction and writing with a perfect cast for the material. Normally reliable actors excel, particularly Hutton’s world-weary turn as a failing musician, and borderline hateable actors turn in career-best performances, with Michael Rapaport and Lauren Holly delivering pitch-perfect takes on their actual everyday personalities, i.e., gratingly annoying and connivingly bitchy, respectively.
Beautiful Girls opens with Willie (Timothy Hutton), a struggling professional piano player working the lounge circuit, heading home for his ten-year high school reunion in Knights Ridge, a small town in snowy rural Massachusetts. Once Willie gets home, he meets up with his perpetually adolescent buddies, each of whom represents a certain narrative archetype: Tommy (Matt Dillon), the former sports hero still coasting on high school glories; Paul (Michael Rapaport), “the alcoholic high school buddy shit-for-brains,” as Natalie Portman so charmingly puts it; and Mo (Noah Emmerich), the solid family guy who was the first one to figure out what it actually means to be a man. (Hint: Take care of your responsibilities, live for — but don’t hang around waiting for — the profound, and let loose when the chance comes along.)
Chief among the film’s virtues is its capturing of How Guys Talk, and Beautiful Girls begins and ends with the keenly self-conscious relationship among four high school friends who have outgrown their adolescent trappings without leaving them completely behind, like gangly ten-month Lab pups whose oversized paws are like snowshoes on their gawky bodies. Beginning with the initial awkwardness of Hutton’s interactions with his estranged friends, followed by their quick return to their old habitual friendly sparring and verbal shorthand, Beautiful Girls deletes the “ums” and “y’knows,” but it delivers the substance, from the most banal and immature (Scale of Ten ratings of women’s face-body-personality scores) to the more profound realization that their emotional procrastination amounts to waiting for “something beautiful.”
Hutton is the heart and soul of the film, with his sleepy, puzzled eyes and laconically sardonic demeanor. It’s the occasional outing like this one that makes me wonder what happened to the guy from Ordinary People and The Falcon and the Snowman. At this point in his career, Hutton should be competing with Tom Hanks for major dramatic roles, and it’s never been clear what happened beyond a few poor project selections. Dillon makes a major impression with less screen time, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else as the fading tough guy who traded high school glory for a blue collar existence, ploughing driveways and ploughing the high school sweetheart who married someone else. Noah Emmerich, a substantially underused character actor, nicely grounds the vibrating instability of the others, and his gentle outlook and sweet relationship with his mousy wife provide context for some of the film’s best moments. Even Michael Rapaport comes off pretty well, despite the short shelf life of his post-True Romance credibility.
Beautiful Girls tends to be viewed as a guys’ picture, and that’s pretty fair if the meaning is that the film doesn’t provide much in the way of fully realized female characters. With the exception of Portman, however, the movie isn’t about those characters, though it is about their relationships to some extent. The women fall into somewhat familiar symbolic roles — the long-suffering girlfriend, the vindictive adulterer, the brassy battle ax — though they arrive with their own complex insights into the situation. I’m always a little puzzled by criticism of a film based solely on a lack of deeply developed female roles, as long as the film makes no pretense that it’s an examination of those roles. Such criticisms seem to be misdirected complaints about the lack of analogous films focusing on women, and those complaints are more than fair. It’s one thing, however, to set out to portray a male-female dynamic as a central theme and then short-change the female character with a thin set of clichéd traits; it’s quite another to populate the margins of a narrative with supporting characters and then face complaints when they’re marginalized. It’s certainly unfair that pictures focusing on women’s friendships tend to trade in shallow stereotypes — there seem to be five Sex & the Citys for every Rachel Getting Married — but I don’t expect the men in those films to be much more than sketches. They’re there for context, not to drive the thematic elements.
Without doubt, the plot of Beautiful Girls depends to a great extent on its female characters’ willingness to hang around waiting for the boys to grow up, and there’s a formulaic reliance on the tolerance and patience of women for the hijinks and meandering path to maturity followed by their men. But, I’m sorry to say, that’s my own observation of reality as well. Maybe I love this film so much because it confirms my myopic stereotypes, but by my lights, Beautiful Girls draws in loving detail both the complicated and difficult virtues of female tolerance for the trying job of helping boys become men, as well as the depths of self-abasement that women plumb in trying to find a way to have stable relationships with those same boy-men.
The most flashy of the female roles is probably O’Donnell’s, based almost entirely on her tacked-on rant early in the film about the commercialization of femininity and the consequences of men’s unrealistic expectations formed from “MTV, Playboy, and Madison fucking Avenue.” The scene is abruptly stitched into the film in a way that doesn’t really fit — it comes early in the movie, and there’s no context for why Hutton and Dillon are walking around town with O’Donnell — but the substance of O’Donnell’s angry “big tits/big ass” soliloquy is hard-hitting, penetrating, and hilarious … rendered all the more so by her brusque departure, upon which Dillon and Hutton watch her walk away, remarking, “Nice ass,” followed by, “Nice tits.” (Rapaport’s ersatz complementary rant about his obsession with supermodels is the polar opposite of O’Donnell’s moment not only conceptually but qualitatively, and it’s the one place where the movie comes to a screeching, ugly halt. It’s completely out of place and grinds the proceedings to Full Stop, Please Kill Me, but it passes quickly.)
In contrast to O’Donnell, the less flashy roles played by Thurman, Sorvino, and Holly all have critical points to make, primarily in the bemused, sometimes hopeless way they come to regard the options offered them by the plainly inferior half of the gender equation. Thurman is the corresponding outsider to Hutton’s prodigal son, an out-of-towner who represents the males’ idealized woman: a physically perfect specimen who shoots whiskey, loves baseball, and goes ice-fishing at midnight with Hutton for a soul-baring conversation. Thurman’s role seems like an ironic nod from the writer and director, as she’s so perfect that the boys spend a good portion of the movie making fools of themselves — or making themselves even more foolish — by trying to get in her sights. Sorvino and Holly, on the other hand, serve as more mundane points in a romantic triangle with Dillon — Holly being his high school romance who married a rich guy when Dillon turned into a snow-plough jockey, while Sorvino is the warmer, put-upon current girlfriend who despairs as Dillon continues his dalliance with ice queen Holly.
Then there’s Natalie Portman, deliriously perfect for the role of Hutton’s seriously problematic romantic foil. Central to the theme of Hutton’s slow awakening is his trapped-in-time relationship with his family’s 13-year-old next-door neighbor, Marty (Portman), with whom he experiences a bittersweet spiritual connection while trading barbs and bon mots over the fence. Portman, all coltish charm and precocious analysis, was 15 when the film was shot, and she looks about a foot taller than she did two years earlier in The Professional. It’s intriguing to consider that, building on the strength of her debut major roles in this film and The Professional, Portman may have transitioned from child star to successful adult film actor largely because she played children playing adults in her first two major outings.
With the Portman-Hutton dynamic, we find the slippery divide where the most famous rub about Beautiful Girls arises. The typical comment I have heard from women about Beautiful Girls is something along the lines of “I can’t take a sympathetic view of a 28-year-old man flirting with a 13-year-old girl.” Which misses the point entirely. Hutton isn’t flirting with Portman per se, though her individual specialness is what allows him to open up and examine the brooding uncertainty holding him back in his personal relationships. Hutton is flirting with an idea, an idealization of his own youth and the potential he fears he squandered while waiting for his perfect woman. As Hutton’s character is at pains to point out to his friends, his Portman infatuation is not sexual, not even romantic in a concrete sense; it’s a romantic ideal based on what Portman will become and what Hutton once was. When he sees Portman with her 12-year-old beau, he realizes that he’s envious of the boy — envious of someone being young and full of the possibilities of meeting someone like Portman. Mentally, Portman is far ahead of her years; Hutton’s entire dilemma is caused to a large extent by his insistence on remaining behind his own years. They briefly and tentatively bridge the gap with a tender mutual acknowledgment and a resignation that they are merely passing in the night.
The chemistry of the film — that hoary, ill-defined concept of an ensemble piece just finding its legs — is really what makes it work. Legend has it that director Ted Demme, a nephew of Jonathan Demme, required the core cast to meet in Minneapolis for several weeks before shooting so that they could get used to each other. If true, it was a brilliant move, as the relationships among the cast members are loose and natural. Demme died prematurely in 2002 of a heart attack suffered during a charity basketball game. It’s tempting to wonder what complementary works remained for him to accomplish, but for this cinephile he had already delivered his masterwork, and I’m grateful for that.
How the Pairing Held Up: Any good hooch works with a favorite film, but the edgy punch of cognac, tempered with a cold orangey-lemony bite, was quite enjoyable.
Tastes Like: Two parts hormone-driven male confusion, one part Uma Thurman/Natalie Portman sunny vibrancy, with a dash of lemony O’Donnell (back when that could be a good thing).
Overall Rating: Face: 9.5; body: let’s say 9.5; personality: a solid 10.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
Beautiful Girls: Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton
Boozehound Cinephile | February 12, 2009 | Comments ()