A wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance gathers some steam before fatally derailing in “Crazy/Beautiful.” This well-cast and acted romance between a royally screwed up Westside L.A. rich girl and a purposeful Mexican-American boy from the barrio scores some easy points for its clever opposition of social milieus and of the attitudes to be found therein. But the significant potential of its premise is squandered by an increasing reliance on teen movie cliches, silly plotting and the urge to be upbeat rather than to communicate life lessons. The rarity of serious high school romances in the marketplace of the moment, coupled with the appeal of leads Kirsten Dunst and especially newcomer Jay Hernandez, looks to prompt a good turnout from the young target audience.
Still, this is one of those cases where, faced with certain narrative choices, the filmmakers have consistently compromised their work in what feel like marketing-dictated directions, which steadily undercuts its scattered authentic elements and consequently weakens its genuine connection with the viewer. It’s hard to believe that a more honest telling of this story, one that dealt more openly and directly with what kids think and feel, and therefore spoke to its audience more meaningfully, wouldn’t perform even better than this cosmeticized version.
As it is, pic consists of a series of touchstone relationship scenes papered together by a relentless stream of 30 insistently banal and thematically on-the-nose pop tunes. A bad girl who lives in a glass house overlooking the sea, Nicole (Dunst) wears cut-off T-shirts with no bra to Pacific High in affluent Pacific Palisades and cuts class to drink. Looking not quite as trashy as her best friend Maddy (Taryn Manning), she still cuts the figure of a dissolute tramp, the definition of a spoiled rich kid spiraling in the wrong direction.
Nicole surprises even herself when she sets her sights on Carlos (Hernandez), a fine-looking straight-A student and football star who gets up before dawn every day to bus all the way to Pacific from East L.A. Still obedient to his strict old country mother, Carlos is earnest, cognizant of the value of hard work and a good education, and lives by the sort of strong values that Nicole scoffs at.
Still, it’s impossible for Carlos to ignore the ripe charms that Nicole practically pushes in his face, on top of the lure of the different and the unknown, so the young man allows himself to be driven around and flirted with by Nicole and Maddy. Before long, Nicole takes him home and, in broad daylight and with her father right outside her bedroom window, starts stripping herself and Carlos in the expectation of immediate gratification. With a sense of modesty and decorum, Carlos won’t play along with such a scenario, so the inevitable is merely delayed a bit while Nicole tarnishes the good boy by inducing him to slack off on some of his family and school responsibilities.
While familiar, the dynamic thus far is plausible enough, and both young thesps invest their characters with absolute credibility and solid detailing; although it’s not explained why, Nicole really is floundering, and Carlos, while human enough not to be able resist the fruit dangling in front of him, still seems sufficiently strong to be seduced only up to a point.
But what’s a big drag for Nicole turns out to represent a big break for Carlos: Her father Tom (Bruce Davison) is a longtime congressman who offers to help Carlos in his ambition to get into Annapolis. Relations between Nicole and Dad are severely strained, and worse between Nicole and stepmom Courtney (Lucinda Jenney), who’s preoccupied with her baby daughter and can’t stand Nicole’s desultory attitude.
When Nicole is with Carlos, who dreams of being a Navy pilot, an occasional sweetness emerges from the damaged girl, notably when she has the generosity to hire a small plane to take Carlos up in the air for the first time, resulting in one of the film’s better scenes. But there’s no question that she’s damaged goods and, on balance, not at all a good influence on her otherwise highly focused boyfriend.
In a teen romance in which you’re meant to root unconditionally for the young lovers to make it work, you’re not supposed to agree with the negative assessments and admonishments of old fogey parents. However, when Tom eventually warns Carlos that Nicole is highly destructive and that he should stay away from her for his own good, it’s all too obvious that he’s right.
Unfortunately, debuting scripters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi turn Carlos suddenly dumb at this point, letting him do things that are totally out of character for the principled young man we’ve come to know. Pic abruptly veers into reckless-young-lovers-on-the-run territory at the precise moment one doesn’t even want the relationship to be happening anymore, and certain revelations about why Nicole is as messed up as she is come far too late in the game to make the difference they should in Carlos’ — and the viewer’s — understanding of and sympathy for her. Upbeat coda feels phony and tacked-on.
Despite all the missteps, the effective cross-cultural dynamic and the allure of the two leads make the film somewhat palatable for a while. Following up on her surprise hit “Bring It On” last year, Dunst starts her transition from teen cutie to serious young adult actress here with a perf that suggests that she would have been happy to go even further into the troubled psyche of a girl seemingly bent upon squandering all her advantages in life.
In his bigscreen debut, Hernandez is a major find for whom big things unquestionably lie ahead. Presenting a sincerity and clean-cut image that never seems square, the actor is enormously appealing, has an openness that the camera likes and can shift emotional gears with no evident problem.
Only downside to his character is that the script provides no indication of the pressures he’s had to deal with at home and in his community to get where he is; his homies could have provided some sense of this, but are instead presented as a bunch of benign lugs who have little evident attitude toward the certainty that their buddy will shortly be leaving them behind.
Other perfs border on the caricatured. Davison achieves some nice humor of recognition as a do-gooder liberal politico who drives an electric car and casually drops names of such pals as Martin Sheen and the late Cesar Chavez. Jenney captures the neuroses of the modern over-concerned mom with almost embarrassing accuracy, while Manning shares with Dunst in some real teen spirit scenes of wild abandon in the early-going.
Behind-the-scenes hands do their jobs efficiently, but the music staffers overdo theirs with a predominantly song-oriented soundtrack that is incredibly overbearing and obvious in its point-making. Title is being printed entirely lowercase in print ads and much editorial copy, but normal uppercase for the first letter of each word prevails onscreen.