- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2000

According to Holly Golightly, "There are shades of limelight that can ruin a girl's complexion." Perhaps standards were far more demanding when "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was published and then transposed memorably to film.

The current norm is closer to the ironically titled but humorously retarded "Beautiful," which contrives to glorify a small-town heroine whose needy vanities and deceits defy all the arm-twisting and tear-jerking tricks of director Sally Field and screenwriter Jon Bernstein.

The adolescent Mona Hibbard, introduced in 1986 and portrayed by Colleen Rennison, displays an obsession with beauty contests.

She is poorly qualified but doggedly determined.

She ignores rejection down to the present. The "mature" Mona, foolishly embodied by Minnie Driver, somehow has managed to turn repeated setbacks into the Miss Illinois crown in a march toward her ultimate goal, Miss American Miss. Actually, Miss American Wrong would suit her better.

That Mona will emerge as an audience darling is unlikely, but the filmmakers cannot resist a harebrained partiality that depends on insulting the audience to rig a happy ending for their undeserving heroine. Such are the joys of "empowerment" theology, also evident in "Nurse Betty" and the low-budget "Girlfight."

Miss Field fails to realize that Mona's selfish quest always creates obstacles to the willing suspension of disbelief, not to mention the sane investment of empathy.

For example, Mona is allowed to sabotage a snooty rival by applying liquid glue to the girl's incendiary baton, which then causes burn injuries. Miss Field depicts the escapade as a hoot. Evidently, it never jeopardizes further aspirations by Mona as a contestant.

A bit later, Mona fails to recognize this same baton nemesis, Joyce Parkins (Leslie Stefanson), as a hostile Chicago TV interviewer with a different name. Talk about daring oversights. This whopper allows vindictive Joyce to imperil Mona's chances at the Miss Wrong finals by threatening an expose. Mr. Bernstein isn't even playful enough to insert a character who might warn Mona, "It's the same dame."

Not that anyone should begrudge Joyce a payback, given the scurviness of Mona as a seeker of fame and fortune.

The most flagrant sign of her moral depravity is her refusal to acknowledge her own child, a precocious tyke named Vanessa, played by Hallie Kate Eisenberg.

Mona's best pal, Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams), a domesticated treasure who works as a nurse at a home for the elderly and has been sewing Mona's costumes since girlhood, also has agreed to pose as Vanessa's mother. Ostensibly, this ruse protects the eligibility of unworthy, manipulative Mona, who scarcely requires unwed motherhood to gild a tarnished reputation.

The screenwriter arranges for Ruby to be jailed for criminal negligence. This brilliant stroke obliges unattended Vanessa to accompany Mona to the finals, where circumstances will force the cheater to come clean, in the tradition of Parson Dimmesdale at the close of "The Scarlet Letter."

Incredibly, Mona also is permitted to emerge as America's favorite by having maternal acknowledgment forced on her as a last resort. Those of us with a higher opinion of fellow citizens, despite the movies they fall for on a regular basis, will always regret the waste of a really hilarious alternative.

This would require retooling "Beautiful" as a successful farce a merciful sort of makeover at worst.

One of Mona's rivals is a ventriloquist ventriloquism seems to enrage the heroine more than piano playing, singing or fiddling. Mona appears to botch the talent finals with a faint-voiced rendition of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," a terrible choice for her even if she could carry a tune. But what if Mona and Vanessa improvised a quick act with the child posing as a ventriloquist's dummy? That has genuine show-stopping potential.

Moreover, it would make as much sense as anything "Beautiful" actually wants you to mistake for a plausible happening.

1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "Beautiful"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and comic vulgarity; allusions to unwanted pregnancy)

CREDITS: Directed by Sally Field

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

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