Beautiful doesn't measure up to chick flick status quo

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Philip Wuntch / The Dallas Morning News

As chick flicks go, Beautiful isn't worth a cluck.

It's directed with verve by Sally Field and performed with relentless drive by Minnie Driver, Hallie Kate Eisenberg and Kathleen Turner. But it all points to an inescapable truth: You can't steer the wrong script in the right direction.

Beautiful is as predictable as a beauty queen's tearful acceptance speech. Everything leads to the screenplay's big moment of truth, which is far from momentous. By that time, Ms. Driver's character of Mona Hibbard has so tried your patience that you'll be tempted to make a Rhett Butler-styled exit.

In her feature directorial debut, Ms. Field gracefully plows her way through this goulash of cliches. She has an actor-turned-director's affection for characterization, and she shows a basic understanding of movie rhythm. As a bridge to her next project, the movie will suffice.

But Beautiful will be to Ms. Driver what In Love and War was to Sandra Bullock. It spotlights her worst qualities as an actress and a personality. She never discovers the secret of how to play a grating character without giving a grating performance.

Ms. Driver's Mona must create her own luck. Her heedless mother and lusting stepfather are no help, and Mona focuses all her frustrated ambitions on the world of beauty pageants. In a rare unselfish moment, she defends classroom outcast Ruby. From that moment, Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams) is her inseparable friend. It's a perfect duo, Mona being a consummate taker and Ruby, an innate caregiver.

When Mona gives birth to a daughter, Vanessa, Ruby assumes the maternal role. A child, particularly one born inconveniently out of wedlock, would ruin Mona's beauty queen chances. But as Vanessa grows older, and is played by 8-year-old Ms. Eisenberg of Pepsi commercial renown, she unmistakably resembles her natural mother. Bette Davis could not have faced more potential melodrama.

But Beautiful is played more for laughs than for melodrama, and Ms. Driver lacks the ferocious comic stamina that would have made Mona palatable. She's funny when delivering a full-voiced "The Wind Beneath My Wings" to a woman about to give birth in a discount store (yes, another one of those scenes), but she needs more over-the-top liberation.

Ms. Turner, in a brief role as a beauty contestant tutor, shows her customary lack of restraint and delivers a funny, wicked-witch performance. Ms. Adams manages to make Ruby something other than a doormat, although the character clearly has self-esteem problems that the screenplay chooses to ignore.

Ms. Eisenberg is a potent stick of dynamite as Vanessa, who always indicates that she knows more than the stupid grown-ups give her credit for knowing. Bridgette Wilson does a solid turn as Miss Texas.

Nevertheless, Beautiful stands on an extremely wobbly platform. If you're fascinated by the pageants, you'll look at your watch frequently, but not incessantly.