“Beautiful,” Sally Field’s decidedly unexciting feature directorial debut, aims to say something relevant about American society’s preoccupation with appearances at the expense of such qualities as inner beauty and moral integrity. Minnie Driver plays a small-town Illinois girl whose sole ambition in life is to win the Miss America contest. There’s no particular reason to see this disappointingly trivial picture on the bigscreen; in scale, production quality and message, it’s perfect material for the Lifetime channel.
Beauty contests are a natural for nasty satire, but Fields, working with a screenplay credited to Jon Bernstein, instead propounds a philosophy similar to that of “Forrest Gump” (in which she played the central character’s mother): Listen to your heart and be true to yourself; whether you’re smart or stupid, good or bad, shouldn’t matter much.
Yarn begins in 1986 in Naperville, Ill., at a dental clinic, where young Mona flaunts her braces to the camera. Going from one minor contest to another, often sponsored by greedy beauty pageant expert Verna Chickle (an utterly wasted Kathleen Turner), Mona never wins, but her determination doesn’t wane. Lack of rapport with her working-class mom and stepfather makes her even more committed to her goal. Narrative suggests that Mona’s merciless zeal stems from an unglamorous and unloved childhood.
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Second act jumps to 1999 and finds Mona just as unwilling to give in, climbing her way up the pageant ladder on sheer will and merciless hunger for victory. Her best friend from childhood, Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams), shows the patience of a saint in helping Mona pursue her ambition. When Mona gets pregnant and gives birth to Vanessa (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), Ruby pretends to be the child’s mom. Problem is, Vanessa looks just like Mona, and everyone recognizes the resemblance.
Mona has been the name of numerous “bad” protagonists in movies, from Robert Altman’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” to Nick Gomez’s “Drowning Mona.” In Field’s pic, Mona is yet another uniquely American monster, a poor cousin to the TV weatherwoman played by Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” — a far superior satire about the pursuit of fame at all costs (where it was mean-spirited, jaunty, bitchy, brisk and fun, Field’s film is bland, dull and overly long).
But in an interesting echo of the earlier film, the inquiring journalist in “Beautiful” is a woman (Leslie Stefanson) who hopes that her supposedly scandalous reports about Mona’s family secret will catch the attention of Tom Brokaw and catapult her to national stardom.
Pic’s last reel rehashes the familiar behind-the-scenes elements of a beauty pageant and all its dreary acts, from bathing-suit parade to talent contest. The implausible ending recalls a typical “Oprah” show.
Vacillating between comedy and family melodrama, the film never finds the right tone for its few mild jokes or life lessons. “Beautiful” is the kind of populist fairy tale in which the heroine gets to repent for her sin — and be cheered by feminists for proving that mothers (even bad ones) should be eligible to participate in beauty contests.