A preening pretty boy learns to seek beauty beyond outward appearances in “Beastly,” a brain-dead update of the classic fairy tale whose feeble understanding of its own point runs only skin-deep. In a pic whose message is “looks don’t matter,” casting former model Alex Pettyfer and then cursing him to look more interesting via cool goth tattoos and scars effectively assumes the targeted teen demo is no less superficial, though scant admissions should prove otherwise. A kiss may cure the monster, but not even campy perfs from Mary-Kate Olsen and Neil Patrick Harris can save this ugly snarl of cliches.
Greenlit in the “me too” spirit following “Twilight’s” astounding international success, “Beastly” is based on Alex Flinn’s trying young-adult novel of the same name, an unpleasant first-person tour through the mind of a shallow narcissist named Kyle Kingsbury. British thesp Pettyfer (all grown up from his Alex Rider days to embody the Aryan ideal) plays Kyle, BMOC at a posh prep school where student body elections seem to prize the “body” over the students.
Life comes easy to Kyle, who enjoys the privileges afforded the son of a New York newscaster (Peter Krause), including such hand-me-down words of wisdom as, “People like people who look good. Anyone who says otherwise is dumb or ugly.” It all goes to show what Bruce Wayne might have become had thugs failed to off his father at an impressionable age. Such toxic parenting suggests Kyle may still possess the potential for enlightenment, which he receives the hard way after crossing witchy classmate Kendra (Olsen, memorably over-the-top in her wild hair and raccoon-eyed closeups) the same night he meets his soul mate (Vanessa Hudgens), a far cry from the homely outsider described in the book.
Though Kendra’s magic powers are never explained, she manages to transform the generically handsome hunk into an exotic ink-stained, bald-headed art specimen, with mercury-like rivulets running through his skin. The effect is stunning, thanks to impressive prosthetics work by Alterian’s Tony Gardner (who got his start on “Thriller”), but fails to describe the kind of disfigurement that would lead a vain teen to withdraw from school and retreat to a palatial penthouse for the rest of the term.
Faced with this paradox — looking better but feeling worse — Pettyfer proves incapable of conveying Kyle’s anguish, which makes two-thirds of the movie incredibly awkward as more versatile co-stars (including a good-sport Neil Patrick Harris as a vision-impaired but fashion-forward tutor) try to milk chemistry and humor from their interactions with the character.
Coming off the dynamite ensemble of “Phoebe in Wonderland,” writer-director Daniel Barnz seems confounded to encounter such a limited leading man, and ill equipped to correct the problem, leaving only the scar tissue of heavy editing where shots or entire scenes have been scrapped. Barnz is great with atmosphere, however, creating memorable locations in which to set otherwise forgettable scenes, although pic mostly seems to be marking time until its inevitable resolution.
Kyle has one year to convince someone to love him for who he is or risk being left ugly for life, but little changes in his character, apart from a total loss of self-confidence. And who’s to say that “happily ever after” means going back to looking like a human Ken doll after all the on- and offscreen magic it took to make him interesting?