Movie review: (Non-)Commitment in 1996 A.D.
Beautiful Girls [USA, 1996]
Director: Ted Demme
MPAA Rating: R [strong language]
“Commitment is an act, not a word.” — Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher
“One makes a decision based on what one wants, not based on what one doesn’t want.” — Jan, waitress
City transplants from a small town have the most acute sense of self-awareness when going back home, especially for high school reunions. Doubly so for reunions held during a cold winter.
Any vague successes of The Kid That Left Town can be trotted home to celebrate — “I’m a lounge pianist with a nice girlfriend,” “Rent is expensive but I can deal with it” — while all failures, embarrassments and uncertainties can be safely stowed away in the metropolis, that vast anonymous void to everyone back home. Those who leave the roost define ‘hometown’ as a concept, an incubator from which they’ve cracked, hatched and flown away, a past recording that remains in suspended animation until the triumphant city-dweller returns home and decides to (re)play it all over again. Sometimes.
Faced with the decisions one must make in their 30s (take a guess and you’ll know which ones), Willie Conway (Timothy Hutton) leaves New York City and heads back to his childhood home with hopes to “sort things out.” He arrives back home as neutral to commitment as ever, a model of success to some of his more outgoing friends; to the more settled down, all of his problems can and will be solved with a want to commit. As with most people fumbling around and trying to sort out a worthwhile life, Willie feels pretty pathetic about his (non)problems/commitments. Surely any non-decision in a big city is better than being a townie, those clown princes of the pool hall, grown-ups who equally shun, crave and create gossip, those permanent fixtures of a hometown’s never-changing landscape.
Willie’s closest friends in Knights Ridge, Mass. are townies to a T. There’s Paul, a model-obsessed, emotionally stunted 30-something (played by Michael Rapaport, a brilliant buffoon) whose recent hobby is packing a wall of freshly-plowed snow in front of his ex-girlfriend’s garage door every night. After these antics he’ll have the nerve to offer her a ‘champagne’ (dirt-colored) diamond ring. When she rejects Paul and the ring for all the obvious reasons, back to the plow he goes, mission in hand.
In fact, most of Willie’s pals are in the business of clearing the local roads. Tommy a.k.a. “Birdman” (Matt Dillon) is in charge of the operation, a fitting title for the one-time high school football star who hasn’t quite got over his glory days, or his high school girlfriend, although he’s in a relationship.
Last and least there’s Kev (Max Perlich), forever a sidekick, without a beautiful girl or major achievement to his name, and the only one who seems reasonably content with his simple life.
Rejection, lack of commitment, men in their 30s that are unable to move forward — these are the problems the beautiful girls of Knights Ridge must deal with time and time again.
Jan (Martha Plimpton), the receiver of Paul’s snowdrifts and affection, is so fed up with his childish lifestyle — his bedroom walls are plastered with models; his dog’s name is Elle Macpherson — that she’d rather date a divorced butcher for the time being, even if she’s a vegetarian. Tommy’s loyal girlfriend Sharon (Mira Sorvino) can’t help but feel defeated; she’ll never live up to his past as long as he refuses to stop his affair with his unhappily married old flame, Darian Smalls (Lauren Holly).
Rounding out the cast are other small town staples: high school sweethearts now married with children;
a hairstylist-slash-therapist that spins a ferocious takedown on the male psyche (in a drugstore, no less);
a successful local barkeep that can’t shake his old nickname, and said barkeep’s gorgeous blonde cousin (a beautiful girl incarnate). And there’s the new addition to Knights Ridge, a daydreaming 13-year old “old soul” named Marty (Natalie Portman), who may be the most beautiful girl of them all.
On paper, all these names and relationships sound convoluted, but it all comes together quite nicely. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg wrote “Beautiful Girls” in a small Massachusetts town, and his characters are loosely based after people and events in his life at the time. At times the dialogue is more wordy and sentimental than need be, but it does perfectly mirror the aesthetic of small-town drama.
The drama regarding Willie and Marty’s friendship can only be described as romantic. While the idea of a man in his thirties admiring a young beautiful girl conjures up thoughts of Humbert Humbert — the movie is aware enough to make a Lolita reference on its own — deep down both parties are smart enough to know that their mutual admiration, their mutual love, will remain an ideal to live by.
And all we’re left with are ideals to live by — ones given to us from our friends and partners, ones given to us by those we’ve left behind. Only then are we ready to make decisions based on what we want.