They appear like fireworks in the sky, glittering brightly for a few seconds before fading away into the darkness. Every decade is littered with those little seen gems, those movies whose quality is high but for some reason, fail to attract the necessary audience that would make it a legitimate hit.
Beautiful Girls fits this description perfectly. It appeared quickly in theaters in 1996, was well received by critics and faded away like so many others of it’s kind. When I was a teenager I would see the cover to this movie at my local movie rental store. I was interested, but didn’t really take the plunge until college and realized I had missed out on a good movie for years.
Willie, a New York piano player returns to his home town of Knight’s Ridge, Mass. He’s back for his high school reunion, and to sort out some women problems.
Back in town, Willie reconnects with his old friends – Tommy (Matt Dillon), Mo (Noah Emmerich), Paul (Michael Rapaport) and Kev (Max Perlich) while downing beers at another friends new bar. Time it seems has not changed much in Knight’s Ridge in the last ten years or so and it shows. Like young adults who still act like immature teens, despite being well past the age where it’s ok to do so, Willie and his friends (except Mo) all seem to be frozen by the prospect of growing up and transitioning into the next phase of their lives. Part of this phase would be commitment in a relationship which with the exception of Mo(who married his high school sweetheart), looks like it’s failing to gain any real traction with his friends.
Long past his days as king of the school, Tommy strings along his longtime girlfriend Sharon (Mira Sorvino) while yearning for, and sleeping with his married high school flame Darian (Lauren Holly). Willie meanwhile is having second thoughts about his live-in lawyer girlfriend (Annabeth Gish) and their future together. Paul on the other hand is probably the worst off of the bunch. He’s recently lost his girlfriend due to years of withholding any real commitment, and why? Because Paul is obsessed with supermodels; his bedroom walls are covered in posters. Rather than commit to the beautiful and wonderous women around them, these men constantly have one foot out the door in case “something better” comes knocking.
That is really the big message in this movie. These men while good looking, are not male models (well, maybe Dillon could be) and yet they expect that the women in their lives should be. They would rather hold out for that perfect woman, than realize that they have perfectly fine women already who they are lucky to have.
Two particular characters help resolve the problems affecting some of these men. The first is 13 year old Marty (Natalie Portman) who has recently moved next door to Willie’s father and brother. She pretty, smart, insightful and precocious and seems well on her way to attaining that “heart-breaker-in-training” status.
They meet-cute in the driveway and Willie is charmed by her intelligence and how she sees right through him. From the start there is a connection, and it’s apparent throughout the movie that both Willie and Marty have a crush on one another. However it’s an idealistic crush as opposed to a sexual one which is good. The latter would obviously be in bad taste.
Willie sees her as someone who will become this lovely woman not too far into the future. She’s full of the promise that he see’s vanishing from his own life and becomes slightly heady and intoxicated by it.
Marty however is really a symbol. She is Willie’s last link to his youth, but also his last obstacle in moving forward with his life. Her allure is that of someone who any man would want a few years down the road
These scenes in the movie really shine as does Natalie Portman who gives a truly stunning performance early in her career. She’s alternately a kid, and yet Marty is also more mature than kids her age. There is a streak of loneliness in her character that she brings out beautifully onscreen.
The other female who makes an impact is Andera (Uma Thurman). She’s just flown in from Chicago, is in her mid-twenties, is strikingly beautiful, down to earth, and seems wise. Though the movie never comes out and says it, in a way, she’s Marty in ten years or so. Her job is to give these so-called-men some real advice.
Like Marty, she makes a connection with Willie. In her last scene of the movie, they have a conversation while ice fishing that is helpful to Willie. Then she leaves before she can make a mistake.
Willie: I look at you and I think its amazing that theres a
guy out there gets to do all kinds of things with you. He gets to
make you happy and spend evenings with you…
Andera: …make me martinis, listen to Van Morrison…
Willie: …smell your skin…
Andera: …after a day at the beach.
Willie: Yeah, and read the papers…
Andera: …on a Sunday morning…
Willie: …a rainy Sunday morning, and pepper your belly with
baby kisses… Sorry.
Andera: The thing is, theres a guy out there that thinks the same thing
about Tracy and hes jealous of you because you get to do all that with her. Willie: Let me ask you something; can you think of
anything better than making love to an attractive stranger… with
just an oil light to guide your way? Can you think of anything
Andera: Going back to Chicago. Ice cold martini. Van Morrison.
Willie: Sunday papers. Got ya.
It’s an excellent scene and Andera imparts something that maybe Willie never thought about. There is a guy out there who wishes he could do with Tracy, what Willie gets to do with her every day. Translation? Be happy you have this wonderful woman because there are plenty of takers lining up if you move aside.
One of the things facing every one of these guys is the reality of how your life has turned out as opposed to how you thought it would be. Tommy’s best days WERE in high school. Willie was more hopeful of his piano career back then. Instead of successful careers, Tommy, Paul and Kev work construction in the summer and plow snow in the winter. Far from where they thought they would be at one time.
One of the wonderful things about this movie is that not everyone has a pat and dry ending. Some end up better at the end, while others still have the problems they had before Willie came home. However, each character has perspective if nothing else and might just be taking the first baby steps toward actual adulthood. Overall there is a melancholic sense of hope at the end.
The screenplay was written by Scott Rosenberg who based the town, people and events on his own real life experiences. The locations, characters and people all feel genuine which is helped by the excellent script.
Admittedly, there isn’t much material that is covered that hasn’t been done before and maybe even better in some cases, but the great ensemble cast and script elevates the movie to a different level. Beautiful Girls is funny at times, truthful and honest at others. It pays attention to it’s characters first and foremost. The plot is just a way of bringing everyone together.
The acting is excellent here. Though she has only about 15 minutes or so of actual screen time, Uma Thurman gives one of her best performances. From Matt Dillon, to Lauren Holly, to Rosie O’Donnell and Michael Rapaport, each actor get’s at least one scene to show what they’ve got and each brings their best work.
Ted Demme’s direction is unobtrusive. More often than not we feel more like a voyeur. It’s subtle work which can often be the hardest to pull off and make look good.
Overall, I consider Beautiful Girls to be one of my favorite films. One that’s great to watch on a cool, rainy day when all you have to do is wrap a blanket around you and curl up on the couch for a few hours.
Like I said above, it’s not a film that astounds with originality, but everything is done and done well. It’s one of those movies where the whole is better than the sum of it’s parts.
I have this weird thing where I compare movies to food. Some movies are like a great piece of steak, or a bowl of soup, etc.
For Beautiful girls, I would have to say that it’s like a rich piece of chocolate cream pie. It’s sweet, heavy and thoroughly enjoyable. It may not always be the best for you, but sometimes the best comfort food isn’t. But you know what? I’ll take a slice of that pie anyday.
Here is a video of that scene scripted above.