Some people, no matter what they look like or who they are, have the
incessant urge to always succeed, whatever the cost. Such is the case with
26-year-old Mona Hibbard (Minnie Driver), who has been practicing for the
Miss American Miss pageant ever since she was 8. With her pretty, but
unconventional looks, she has rarely won any of the contests she has entered,
even going as far as sabotaging other contestants' routines simply to give
her a better chance at winning. Growing up in a lower-class household with a
white-trash mother and no-good stepfather, Mona hasn't exactly gotten the
love that she has wanted, but who could blame the people around her when she
is such a self-centered person herself?
At 19, Mona had a child out of wedlock, and instead of caring for her
daughter, Vanessa (played at age 7 by Hallie Kate Eisenberg), her best friend
Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams) has taken over as surrogate mother, unbeknownst to
most people. The resemblance between Mona and Vanessa is uncanny to many, but
they manage to brush such things off, as Mona remains to her daughter simply
her "mother's" obnoxious best friend.
After winning Miss Illinois at the state competition, Mona finally has come
thisclose to fulfilling her dream, being eligible for the Miss American Miss
pageant. But then an unforeseen event strikes, and Mona, somewhat of a child
herself, finds herself having to take care of Vanessa by herself, including
taking her to the competition, despite mothers not being allowed to be
runners in the contest.
"Beautiful," the feature film directorial debut of Sally Field, is, like Mona
Hibbard, an unconventional comedy-drama that is surprisingly biting in its
treatment of the central character, who is often distasteful and conceited.
In an average film on the same subject, Mona would be presented as far more
sympathetic just so she could be more likable for mainstream audiences, but
director Field and screenwriter Jon Bernstein hold nothing back in showing
how reprehensible someone can be simply to achieve a decidedly petty goal.
As Mona, the talented Minnie Driver (2000's "Return to Me") perfectly creates
this person who is unknowingly a monster on the outside, a side effect of
never experiencing love and compassion before in her own family. Mona is not
always likable, but there are very few actresses who could aid as a bridge
between such a difficult character and the viewer, and Driver is luckily one
of them. Moreover, as the film progresses and she begins to experience what
she has missed by having her sights set on only one thing, Mona gradually
does become more compassionate, and the catharsis she finally has is
effectively done in the climax.
Best known as the Pepsi girl who imitates the likes of Aretha Franklin and
Ray Charles, young Hallie Kate Eisenberg (1999's "Bicentennial Man") is very
good and thankfully not unctuous as the strong-willed, confused Vanessa, who
Mona discovers possesses many of the same traits she did as a child.
Eisenberg and Driver work well together, and the familial relation between
the two is believable. Meanwhile, Joey Lauren Adams (1997's "Chasing Amy") is
her usual impressive self, even when her character's motivations are a little
fuzzy and you unavoidably question why she would stay friends with someone
like Mona for all these years.
In supporting roles, Leslie Stefanson (1999's "The General's Daughter"),
while doing a professional job, is more of an annoyance than an interesting
character, as a news reporter out to expose the many unwholesome things Mona
has done over the years. Kathleen Turner is even more wasted as beauty
pageant expert Verna Chickles, and it is unfortunate to see her return to
such a throwaway role after her wonderful work in this year's best film (so
far), "The Virgin Suicides." As fellow Miss American Miss contestants, both
Bridgette L. Wilson (1999's "House on Haunted Hill," but when did she start
getting credited with the middle initial?) and Kathleen Robertson (1999's
"Splendor") are surprisingly memorable, as a poignant twist in the story's
conclusion exposes both of them as being exactly like Mona, something she
Along with some extremely funny moments and the occasional insightful
character moments, "Beautiful" is an entertaining, if flawed, motion picture
all the way up until the disastrous final five minutes, which turn up the
self-appreciation and cheeseball meters so high that it becomes sickening.
The sudden shift in tones in that last stretch of running time is both
jarringly and seemingly out of another movie altogether, and it largely
undermines the integrity of the film as a whole. "Beautiful" is the type of
movie whose basics have been traveled many times before, but it is done well
for the most part. Its successfulness in the first 105 minutes only makes its
stay of execution in the finale all the more depressing.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman