English, French, English - Hearing Impaired, French - Hearing Impaired
Miramax/Buena Vista .
R4 . COLOR . 108 mins .
M15+ . PAL
What is it about American filmmakers that drives them to create so many tales of redemption? Sure, itís been a Hollywood trait for almost as long as theyíve made movies there - descend into the depths of darkness as much as you like, but unless youíre making an edgy thriller youíd better make sure the lead characters all learn something about themselves and ride off into the closing credits, better and more enriched life tucked under their arms, the audience smiling like the Hare Krishnas in Airplane as if they never knew that everything was gonna be alright. Not all voyages of self-discovery end in sweetness, light and hope, but nine times out of ten your average mainstream redemption movie will make sure that they do.
Truth in advertising: one of the beautiful girls (Uma Thurman)
Beautiful Girls is one of those films youíre sure youíve seen variants of a hundred times; the return-to-the-small-town-of-your-childhood story where big life questions are asked and answered inside two hours, where thereís a problem that wonít get properly solved until the problem-holder goes through some kind of test of integrity. These films arenít exactly in short supply, so to make one work on a large scale the filmmakers resort to the canít-miss option - an ensemble cast of highly recognisable actors who are known for their ability to actually act rather than just stand there and look like stars. In this case, that means a solid posse of familiar faces (though a couple are less known today than they were in 1996 when this movie was made). With Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Rosie OíDonnell, Mira Sorvino, Max Perlich, Uma Thurman, Lauren Holly, Martha Plimpton, Michael Rapaport, Annabeth Gish and Natalie Portman sharing screen time thereís not an awful lot that can go wrong in the acting department. So what about the story?
Willie Conway (Hutton) is heading back to the small town he grew up in after years of living in ďthe big cityĒ. Heís about to get married to lawyer Tracy (Gish) but is running scared - should he make the Big Commitment? Does this mean heís going to have to grow up? Panicked, he decides that going back to see his high-school friends for their tenth anniversary school reunion might offer him some answers about where he is. But his father and brother exist in a place not that far removed from Mars, and his friends have all stagnated into the routine comings and goings of a small town going nowhere fast. Itís one great big snowy mid-life crisis waiting to happen, and itís Willieís arrival that seems to trigger much of it off. Suddenly, everyone is re-evaluating their lives and finding answers. And all of it - as goofy Paul (Rapaport) sermonises in a scene with dialogue so inappropriate to his character it makes Dawsonís Creek seem like a documentary - is thanks to the inexorable charms of the various beautiful girls in the menís lives.
For main character Willie, redemption and growth comes first from his encounter with 13 year-old Marty (Portman, in one of her earliest roles), a smart and insightful young girl whoís full of all the promise Willie sees vanishing from his own life. And then thereís Andera (Thurman), the barmanís cousin from Chicago with a typo for a name whoís already found her inner serenity in a relationship back home. But itís not just Willie thatís affected by beautiful-girl-power. Almost all the males in this story make some sort of correction to their lives in this short space of times thanks to the women that are a part of their worlds; the scene where an imminent group bashing of a man is halted by the appearance of his infant daughter is the most contrived application of this theme, but itís all quite clumsy and just a little too smug.
"When I grow up, I'm gonna be queen of a planet up there..."
Sure, thereís excellent acting to be found here - from Sorvino, Thurman, Hutton and especially from Natalie Portman, who already had this acting caper well sussed at this early stage of her career - but the overriding feeling is one of over-familiarity. If youíve been watching movies for any length of time, youíve probably seen it all before. So enjoy the performances and try and ignore the fact that the screenplay by Scott Rosenberg (who seems to flit between rites-of-passage tales like this or Highway and shameless popcorn fare like the execrable Con-Air or, more recently, the scarily stupid Kangaroo Jack) is loaded to the gills with trite clichť, broad generalisations and a bunch of characters unlikeable enough to keep you driving right on through next time you come across a small town with a snow plough roaming the streets. It means well - and is well directed by the late Ted Demme - but at the end of the day itís little more than soap opera with a big budget.
Beautiful Girls is well liked by many, and those who find this film does it for them will be rather pleased to see its appearance on DVD with a 16:9 enhanced transfer, in a slightly opened-up-vertically ratio of 1.78:1. While itís not the greatest transfer in the world - colours often seem more muted than they should, detail isnít always what it could be and there are a few nicks and flecks on the film source - itís generally pretty good, and certainly captures the snowflaky niceness of the town well. That thereís really not a lot of artiness about the cinematography isnít the fault of those doing the transfer, of course, and arguably the temptation to over-light and artificialise the filmís world was best avoided anyway. It is what it is, and this DVD captures it well without ever coming close to making your jaw drop.
Stored on a single-layered disc, the movie gets all the space to itself and, not surprisingly, there arenít any hassles at the compression end of things.
Buena Vista do need to fix their back-cover disc specs problem; on this one, the aspect ratio is wrong, the claim that the film is in a ďscope aspect ratioĒ is wrong, and the implication that the disc is dual layered is, you guessed it, wrong! This section of BVís covers is a legacy of their days being distributed by Warner, but itís perhaps time someone thought about checking and fixing this information, which for some can be a buy-it-or-not decision-maker.
Incidentally, the US release of this film on DVD (back in 2000) offered only a non-anamorphic transfer - making this version easily the one of choice.
While a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is provided here, all indications are that the actual sound mix was done with matrixed surround in mind - including the non-digital Dolby logo in the end credits. Certainly this one behaves just like a 4.0 surround mix from the non-digital generation; the surrounds are monophonic, rarely used at all and, when they are, theyíre extremely quiet. The LFE channel is completely unused, so turn off that subwoofer and recall the olden days one more time.
Fidelity is excellent, from the crystal-clear dialogue to the rich and resonant music score and many soundtrack songs. Nothing to complain about at all, basically, save for a brief unexpected drop in level in the front left channel for a short time during one scene.
The older US disc supplied audio in matrixed Dolby Surround, adding credence to our theory above; either way, having the sound mix in a discrete format makes this PAL version once again the one youíll want if you love the film.
Nothing at all, just like the US release.
A well-intentioned ensemble drama about finding the things that really matter to you, Beautiful Girls is, as we said earlier, highly regarded by many. Those people perhaps havenít seen the many films that preceded it that have covered much the same territory, but either way, at least there are some solid performances from a very capable cast here.
Buena Vista may have taken three years to get this one out in Australia, but with superior picture and sound compared to the US release - and with the price about half of what the Americans paid at the time - this version will have been worth the wait for the filmís fans.