Historical Circuit: ‘Beautiful Girls’ (1996) is Still Asking Men to Grow Up

Timothy Hutton and Natalie Portman in 1996's "Beautiful Girls"
Miramax’s “Beautiful Girls”

TITLE OF FILM: “Beautiful Girls”
FILM YEAR: 1996
DIRECTOR: Ted Demme
WRITER: Scott Rosenberg
STARRING: Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Noah Emmerich, Natalie Portman, Michael Rapaport, Mira Sorvino, Uma Thurman, Rosie O’Donnell, Annabeth Gish, Lauren Holly, Max Perlich, Anne Bobby, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Martha Plimpton

SYNOPSIS:

Knights Ridge, Massachusetts is the epitome of Everytown, USA. There is nothing glamorous here. It is a solid working class and proud of it. The local high school is getting ready to host a reunion for the class of 1986. While most of the graduates have stayed in town since their graduation, Willie Conway (Timothy Hutton) did not.

Willie is a struggling piano player living in New York City who comes back home to attend the reunion and to catch up with some old friends. His friends are engrossed in drama. Tommy (Matt Dillion) is having an affair with his old high school girlfriend (Lauren Holly) while dating anorexic Sharon (Mira Sorvino). Paul (Michael Rapaport) is obsessed with models, even though he desperately wants to get back his ex-girlfriend (Martha Plimpton). Kev (Max Perlich) is the voice of reason and often on the sidelines when it comes to the group. Mo (Noah Emmerich) is the “stable one.” He has succeeded in getting married and having a family.

While watching his friends’ drama unfold and dealing with his own insecurities and doubts, Willie develops a connection to Andrea (Uma Thurman) and Marty (Natalie Portman). Willie’s time back home ultimately helps him come to terms with his life and his place in it.

OBSERVATIONS:

Beautiful Girls” is a bit of a boys club. Scott Rosenberg (who also wrote “ConAir” (1997) and last year’s “Venom”) stepped away from the world of action to write this script. The film is apparently based on his group of hometown friends and their struggles with turning thirty.

Ted Demme, the nephew of famed film director Jonathan Demme, directed “Beautiful Girls” with a great sense of camaraderie. Demme never appears on screen, but a love for this group of guys is palpable. It is as if we have stumbled across some (expertly shot) home movies. Demme showed real promise as a director, but his career did not get to come to full fruition because he passed away at the age of 38.

“Beautiful Girls” works so well because of the ensemble. The friendship between the men is imaginable. Their chemistry is so natural, that you truly believe that they have been friends their whole lives. Each of the male actors delivers a strong performance, but Timothy Hutton is a standout. Hutton (who won an Oscar in 1981 for “Ordinary People) plays Willie with real humility. He is a true observer. He takes everything in, digesting it and then delivers his line as if it had just occurred to him. Good actors can do this. Great actors make it look easy.

Of the women, Natalie Portman gives the noteworthy performance. She was fourteen-years-old when she shot her scenes for the film, but she holds her own opposite, Hutton. Her performance in “Beautiful Girls” proved that she was one to watch, and her career since has lived up to that notion.

Mira Sorvino and Matt Dillon

CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:

In “Beautiful Girls,” the cold and snow bury the town and characters with a sense of complacency. As is often stated in the film, they work all day, and they drink all night. The men are looking for a sense of purpose, although most have very little drive. And the women are trying to find their own sense of place among the men they love.

There are two scenes in the film that stand out in their contrasting explanations as to why men and women have such trouble coming together. Surrounded by magazine cutouts of supermodels, Michael Rapaport delivers a monologue about the beautiful girl. He argues that men should wait for the beautiful girl because she represents potential. A supermodel is “bottled promise” or “hope, dancing in stiletto heels.” If you lose that dream, then what do you have left?

Rosie O’Donnell’s character argues that men are often waiting for something that does not exist. She argues that men cannot commit because they have unrealistic views about women. “Real” women cannot live up to what men want. How can the two come together, if they do not truly see each other?

RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:

“Beautiful Girls” was received well by critics. Darren Bigness of Empire Magazine wrote that “the film really succeeds with its warm treatment of ordinary hang-ups- no life-shattering revelations or pain repressed since childhood, just the genuine, everyday trials of life.” Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “The movie is wry, touching and fun to sit through, thanks to Rosenberg’s amusing spirit, Ted Demme’s vital direction and zesty performances from everyone…”

Released in February of 1996, the film only grossed a total of $10.5 million in the U.S. box office (according to Box Office Mojo). “Beautiful Girls” was distributed by Miramax Films. Bob and Harvey Weinstein founded Miramax in 1979. The Associated Press reported that the Weinstein brothers’ sold Miramax to Disney in 1993 for $60 million, but continued to run the company until they left in 2005 after the foundation of The Weinstein Company. Given recent events, Miramax is probably breathing a sigh of relief over the change in management.

COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:

Buddy comedies have been an excellent source of material for film in recent years. “Everybody Wants Some” (2016) has a group of guys starting college. The film “10 Years” (2011) looks at a group of friends reuniting for their high school reunion. At its core, “The Hangover” (2009) is about three friends dealing with the loss of “freedom” due to marriage. “Going in Style” (2017) is about four retired gentlemen who join forces to steal back what they deserve after their pensions are wiped out. Much like “Beautiful Girls,” each of these films centers around a tight-knit group of men longing for something more than their lives have to offer.

Michael Rapaport, Timothy Hutton, Max Perlich, Matt Dillon

WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:

The film is a snapshot of a particular moment in a man’s life when he must decide whether or not to grow up. Each of the men in this film find themselves in that moment. It is a crisis of integrity and of the soul. Each character is in a rut. And that feeling is extremely relatable. They each grapple with the idea of accepting and/or moving on.

Although more heavily geared toward’s the male perspective, in no way does “Beautiful Girls” make any of the women in the men’s orbit feel unworthy. They are all smart, inquisitive, interesting and opinionated. Not one is someone you would settle for in life. The film simply points out that when a man can realize what truly makes a girl beautiful, he may be able to let go of his fantasy and grab hold of his realty.

“Beautiful Girls” is available for free streaming on Netflix and Hoopla. It is also available for rent/purchase on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Playstation, Fandango Now and Apple.

What are your thoughts on “Beautiful Girls”? Let me know in the comments below.

CHECK OUT THE NEW OFFICIAL PREDICTIONS FOR NEXT AWARDS SEASON ON THE CIRCUIT HUB AND MAKE SURE TO MAKE YOUR OWN IN THE CIRCUIT CENTER!!