Landlocked Love Boat

The dreaded date movie. Snotty critics such as myself hate the genre because real-life moviegoers tend to hold date movies to a different standard:

"Did you like it?"
"Well, there was no story, the jokes weren't funny, and the characters talked like somebody lifted their dialogue straight out of Cosmo or Details. It was staged unimaginatively -- two hours passed without so much as a single original thought or genuine insight flashing across the screen. A bunch of impossibly gorgeous movie stars played self-absorbed whiners obsessing over phony problems and contrived dilemmas, and you knew from the start that it would have a cliched happy ending. But other than that we liked it."

Beautiful Girls has "DATE MOVIE" stamped all over it. In fact the advertising copy even cites a "critic" (Susan Granger of the esteemed CRN International, whatever that is) heralding Beautiful Girls as "the best date movie of the Nineties!"

Which is why I'm more than a little shocked and kind of chagrined to admit that I liked Beautiful Girls. But there's no denying the film's appeal. The secret? This time there are believable characters facing universal problems with witty dialogue and fresh insight. This is a movie about real people -- types everyone knows. The characters who populate most date movies feel about as authentic as the perfect-hair/perfect-skin/perfect-teeth mannequins who strut their stuff in beer commercials. The characters who inhabit Beautiful Girls's fictitious small town of Knight's Ridge, Massachusetts, are more like the people you went to high school with.

Especially the guys. This movie is full of men who are not quite smart enough to understand that they should be thanking their lucky stars for the women who love (and put up with) them. Guys like Paul (the hysterical Michael Rapaport), whose fear of commitment to Jan (Martha Plimpton), his girlfriend of seven years, drives her into the arms of a local butcher. Paul blames everyone but himself for his problems. "You see the hypocrisy?" he rants to anyone who will listen. "Jan's a vegetarian. He's a meat cutter. What kind of life can she have married to a man who stinks of brisket?"

Everybody knows a knucklehead like Paul. But screenwriter Scott Rosenberg prevents his characters from becoming shallow, easily dismissed stereotypes by showing more than one side to their personalities. Even Paul has his good points. He works hard, he's right there to help a buddy in need, and he eventually realizes how badly he's treated Jan and tries to make amends. In fact all the guys in this movie make some variation of Paul's mistake, then come around in the end. Fear of deep involvement with sharp Chicago attorney Tracy (Annabeth Gish) sends cynical piano man Willie (Timothy Hutton) scurrying back to Knight's Ridge to regroup. Former campus stud Tommy (Matt Dillon) loves Sharon (Mira Sorvino), but still carries a torch for his high school sweetheart Darian (Lauren Holly).

Rosenberg doesn't let these overgrown adolescents off the hook. They wrangle with their problems just as real-life characters would; they just express themselves with far wittier one-liners. For example, Paul draws very clear battle lines in the war between the sexes. He admonishes one of his pals who may have confided a few "guy secrets" to a woman: "Never let [women] peek behind the curtain." Rosie O'Donnell's Gina the hairdresser is Paul's opposite number, bringing down the house with her diatribe against the way MTV, Playboy magazine, and Madison Avenue have created a phony silicon-boobs-and-hair-extensions ideal of female beauty. Uma Thurman's and Natalie Portman's characters consistently one-up the males in their lives; in Portman's case that's particularly impressive because the fourteen-year-old actress plays a wise-beyond-her-years thirteen-year-old girl who alternately flirts with and dresses down Hutton's worldly lounge singer.

Admittedly, Beautiful Girls does little to expand the boundaries of the time-tested date-movie narrative formula. There's no real story, just a high school reunion as a flimsy excuse for bringing together all the characters. The couples in this flick wring their hands for a while, but you never doubt that they'll work out their problems in the end. Clever wordplay is not the movie's only saving grace. Beautiful Girls gets the Anytown, U.S.A, vibe right, too. (Although why the filmmakers decided to set their make-believe burg of Knight's Ridge in Massachusetts when the whole movie was shot in Minnesota and feels as Midwestern as cornfields is beyond me.) The snow looks real, as do the houses and the bars and the frozen ponds.

Good music is essential to just about any movie that hopes to attract crowds these days, and the filmmakers' instincts on that account are undeniably, um, sound. Neither sappy strings nor overwrought cymbal crashes accompany the action in Beautiful Girls. Afghan Whigs' lead singer Greg Dulli and his group lend roaring authenticity to their cameo as a bar band, and the film's background tunes include oldies from Greg Kihn and Billy Preston, as well as newer tracks from Ween, Pete Droge, and Morphine. There's even a drunken sing-along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." And you have to admire the chutzpah of a film that sets up a big, sentimental reconciliation scene, then pokes fun at its own corniness by campily scoring the sequence to KISS's mawkish "Beth." The soundtrack may not be as hip as Pulp Fiction's, but it works.

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