- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2001

"Blow Dry" has lagged behind a thematically similar British comedy, "The Big Tease," also designed to champion the underdog and subvert the cutthroat in a flamboyant hairstyling competition.

Evidently made more or less simultaneously, the films locate their heroes in different settings. "The Big Tease" revolved around a resourceful British outsider trying to crack an American contest. "Blow Dry" favors the hometown contenders in an exclusively British event while making room for a romantic subplot with young American actors, Josh Hartnett and Rachel Leigh Cook. Theyre a shyly attractive match as they pretend to be English and half-English, respectively.

On paper, "Blow Dry" seemed a promising uniting of recent discoveries: screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who enjoyed a major success with "The Full Monty," and director Paddy Breathnach, who had a minor one with the picaresque crime comedy "I Went Down."

The collaboration seems to have gone awry at some point, and "Blow Dry" suggests that humorous inspiration failed both writer and director.

The setup has more in common with "The Full Monty" than "I Went Down." The lord mayor of Keighley (pronounced Keithley by the locals), a putatively stagnating industrial town, attracts the annual National British Hairdressing Championships as a potential pick-me-up. (Copycat American filmmakers may be tempted along the same lines by a recent beauty contest in Gary, Ind.)

Mr. Breathnach never succeeds in creating the impression of genuine municipal enthusiasm, even after local candidates emerge from a somewhat overcalculated and maudlin set of circumstances.

Natasha Richardsons Shelley, who runs a salon called the Cut Above with her girlfriend Sandra, played by Rachel Griffiths, gets an urge to compete, in part because she faces a diagnosis of terminal cancer. The severity has been concealed from Sandra.

The malady has been concealed from her despondent former spouse, Alan Rickman as a Keighley barber named Phil. Their son Brian, played by Mr. Hartnett, who works part-time for his dad and part-time clipping the hair of cadavers for a Keighley mortician, also has been kept in the dark about mums illness.

Gradually unmasking her dire condition, Shelley recruits Sandra, Brian and eventually Phil for a partnership in the hairdressing sweepstakes. A decade earlier, the adults were a formidable professional team: Phil and Shelley styled hair, and Sandra was their principal model.

She and Shelley reportedly ran off on the eve of a national championship, costing the deceived Phil not only a wife, but a shot at three straight victories in the category called Total Look.

Quite a few improbabilities are stuffed into this aching back-story for example, the reluctance of either estranged party to take up residence or business in another city.

A former rival named Ray, played by Bill Nighy, has moved on to London. He returns to Keighley brimming with dirty tricks, including comb sabotage in the opening round, Womens Blow Dry.

Miss Cook plays Christina, the daughter of this nemesis. Raised in the United States, she begins as the junior member of her dads team but ultimately switches sides out of affection for honest young Brian.

"Blow Dry" hasnt been enhanced by adding death and a nasty adversary as obstacles. Shelleys plight always seems a cosmetic heartbreaker. Moreover, it shortchanges the sort of radiance that Miss Richardson started to project in gorgeous abundance during the remake of "The Parent Trap."

Two out of four stars

TITLE: "Blow Dry"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity; subplot about a lesbian alliance; allusions to terminal cancer)

CREDITS: Directed by Paddy Breathnach

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

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