What happens when a screenwriter who usually writes crap like Con Air (1997), Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000) or, more recently, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), works on a script close to his life experience? Well, nice movies can come out of it, for a change. And this is the case of Scott Rosenberg, who before writing for terrible television series like Kangaroo Jack (2003 – sorry, I can’t resist making a list of all the horrendous things this man worked on), gave us two excellent comedies like High Fidelity (2000) and, in 1996, Beautiful Girls.
Ted Demme, nephew of the more famous Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991), directed this movie and then died very young, struck down by a heart attack during a charity game after having ingested possibly a little too much cocaine. And thank goodness that the direction was given to Ted Demme, since it seems that the film had also been proposed to Tony Scott, who declined saying that he didn’t feel like working on a movie with a script so focused on dialogues. Indeed, his shaky cam and his seasickness editing wouldn’t have served well such an absurd choice by the screenwriter!
But let’s get to the point and talk about Beautiful Girls. If you have seen Singles, a great 1992 film directed by Cameron Crowe, I would say that Beautiful Girls shouldn’t surprise you: both films are crammed with actors and actresses playing old friends and couples; the two have an excellent rock soundtrack (in Beautiful Girls the Afghan Whigs play live in a club; in Singles there were Alice in Chains and Soundgarden); Matt Dillon plays the same character in both movies (no, not really the same one, but almost the same); they both have feel good endings; and both films are perfect depictions of the early Nineties for which I presume a nostalgic wave will arrive ten years from now when the Eighties’ nostalgia will end (I hope). Add a little bit of High Fidelity for the love stories and the great music, and the movie framework should be clear.
Here’s a musical anecdote: Greg Dulli (the Afghan Whigs’ singer) has a cameo in Beautiful Girls. He was a friend of Ted Demme, so much so that when the director died Dulli dedicated to him an entire album of his Twilight Singers, Blackberry Belle, in 2003. And Punch-Drunk Love, the 2002 film by Paul Thomas Anderson, is also dedicated to Ted Demme. Everybody knew him, apparently!
I would recommend watching Beautiful Girls for a number of reasons. It’s a nice film on friendship (just male friendship, though: despite the title, the girls in the movie are just in the background, so much so that I think that nowadays the producers would impose some more substantial roles for the various Mira Sorvino, Uma Thurman…). It shows a gray and snowy village in the US countryside whose interesting dynamics I found surprisingly similar to those of any European gray country town. There’s a splendid 15-year-old Natalie Portman who, after Léon (1994), continued to make excellent performances. And the soundtrack is splendid: in the main party of the film the dj plays Morphine! This is unthinkable in the 2000s…
The film is interesting since its premise, with Timothy Hutton returning to his home village from the big city in which he lives only to find his old friends whose lives never seem to change (there’s even a dialogue in the film highlighting that). His family relationship, although only sketched, is also interesting, with a father who finds it difficult to express his emotions and a brother who’s a bit strange but fits well in the village environment. I also found realistic how Hutton manages to reconnect without any problem with his friends that he sees rarely, and credit should be given to Demme for how he directed his exceptional cast. Among other things, he also used the same trick used by James Cameron in Aliens (1986): the actors playing the marines spent a few weeks together before starting filming to bond with each other. Demme did the same thing here, and the results are clearly visible on the screen.
And here’s another reason that justifies the vision of the film: music is everywhere. At some point I realized that in a dialogue the characters were speaking with entire lines taken from the song Mr Jones by The Counting Crows! LOL. And even the entire monologue about the beautiful girls of the title is taken from a song by Taking Back Sunday.
And finally, how can we not speak of the fundamental theme of the film, that is the desire to remain young, to avoid the responsibilities that life gives us as soon as we turn 30 years old, give or take a few years? That’s a difficult subject that is dealt with light-heartedly but not too light-heartedly; it’s interesting to see the interactions between the guys and girls who clearly have different visions of what life should be about. The movie is a comedy but it gives us plenty of things to think about. It’s funny to know that Rosenberg’s friends didn’t take this movie very well, as they evidently recognized themselves on the big screen and let’s say that the male friends don’t come out as the sharpest tools in the box.
Still, this is not a perfect movie. Not only the female characters are not fleshed out at all, but one could also criticize the one-dimensionality of the male characters and their being a bit stereotypical. If on the one hand this is certainly true, on the other hand it’s undeniable that each of these characters also appears incredibly realistic. Who hasn’t known the typical jock so famous in high school and who ten years later struggle to find a job and is no longer envied by anyone (Matt Dillon)? And what about his friend who was his shadow at school and who continues to stay around him like a faithful dog (Max Perlich)? And what about the clown of the group (Michael Rapaport)? And the artistic genius that everyone thought he could have a brilliant career but instead finds himself in his 30s undecided between continuing to pursue his ideas or accepting a boring insurance job (Timothy Hutton)? And the one on which no one would have bet a penny and who instead seems to be the most balanced of all, with a stable family and two little children who adore him (Noah Emmerich)?
So maybe there are stereotyped characters, but all five main male characters in the film are well defined, credible, and it’s easy to invest in their stories. I think that it’s a real pity that instead the female characters are limited to being a faithful wife, a girl hopelessly in love and always ready to forgive her man, an overweight friend without a boyfriend, the beautiful cousin of someone who lives in a far away city… in short, clearly Rosenberg didn’t think much about the female counterparts of the protagonists!
Moreover, I found a bit creepy the fixation of Hutton’s character for the girl played by Natalie Portman… I don’t want to say that there’s pedophilia involved, but it seems strange to me for a 29 year old guy to think so intensely about the supposedly 13 year old (actually 15 year old) neighbor, so much so that he starts to think twice about his current girlfriend.
But hey, let’s stop here. Beautiful Girls is an imperfect, interesting film. I recommend watching it together with Singles and High Fidelity, if you want to see what after all is a romantic comedy. Ciao!