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High School Buddies Take Stock in 'Girls'

February 09, 1996|JACK MATHEWS | FOR THE TIMES

Scott Rosenberg, one of the busiest young screenwriters in Hollywood, writes dialogue that seems to leap off the screen, dangle over your head and make you admire it for a few beats. His lines strut, like Richard Gere in "American Gigolo," insisting that you appreciate the cleverness and hard work that went into them.

In other words, he writes dialogue nobody speaks.

That works out OK in Gary Fleder's nicely directed "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," a slick and intentionally artificial fantasy about the ill-fated reunion of a gang of thieves. In Ted Demme's "Beautiful Girls," which is sort of a slackers' version of "Return to Peyton Place," it's a disaster.

The dialogue isn't the only problem with "Beautiful Girls." The characters are bad, too. Forget the title; the movie is about boring guys--a handful of old buddies, most of whom make their living clearing snow from driveways, preparing for their 10-year high school reunion in fictional, snowbound Knights Ridge, Mass. It's time for them to take stock of their lives, and of their relationships, and face a future filled with the challenges of that old bugaboo, adulthood.

If not exactly an all-star cast, the "Beautiful Girls" ensemble features a lot of familiar names. The main guys are played by Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Max Perlich and Michael Rapaport, and their various love interests by Mira Sorvino, Lauren Holly, Martha Plimpton and Annabeth Gish. Rosie O'Donnell is around to crack a few fat jokes and deliver a stupefying monologue about relative female anatomy, and Uma Thurman materializes--like Venus on the half-shell in Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"--to turn the boys' heads.

The few bright spots in the film are provided not by these veterans, however, but by young Natalie Portman, as Marty, a precociously bright and flirtatious 13-year-old who gives Hutton's Willie Conway thoughts of playing Humbert Humbert to her Lolita. Marty is impossibly glib, quoting refashioned Shakespeare on the spur of the moment, but Portman is so full of energy and earnestness, she gets away with it.

Nobody else can surmount the script's arch phoniness. Hutton is what passes for a returning prodigal son; he has been living in New York, playing piano in bar lounges and having an uncommitted romance with a lawyer (Gish) whom he describes to his friends as a "solid 7 1/2" (on a scale of 10) in body, looks and personality. His crises: deciding whether he can settle for someone 2 1/2 points shy of perfection, whether to give up the piano and go into sales, and whether to hang loose for another five years until Marty comes of age.

Dillon's Tommy is an ex-high school super-jock disappointed in himself and the way his life is turning out. His crisis: figuring out how to end a torrid affair with his now-married high school girlfriend (Holly) and commit himself with the sweet and ever-patient Sharon (Sorvino).

Rapaport's Paul is a suspended adolescent, unable to commit to his longtime waitress girlfriend (Plimpton) because he still dreams of meeting one of the pin-ups hanging on his wall. His crisis: getting to know his limitations.

"Beautiful Girls" follows the boys as they work their way through these crises, and it's about as much fun as a neighborhood bar on a Tuesday night. Its crisis: not much happening.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and nude pin-ups. Times guidelines: routine guy talk vulgarity.


'Beautiful Girls'

Timothy Hutton: Willie

Matt Dillon: Tommy

Michael Rapaport: Paul

Mira Sorvino: Sharon

Lauren Holly: Darian

Rosie O'Donnell: Gina

Uma Thurman: Andera

Natalie Portman: Marty

Max Perlich: Kev

Annabeth Gish: Tracy

A Woods Entertainment production, released by Miramax Films. Director Ted Demme. Producer Cary Woods. Screenplay, Scott Rosenberg. Cinematography Adam Kimmel. Editor Jeffrey Wolf. Music David A. Stewart. Production designer Dan Davis. Art director Peter Rogness. Set designer Maria Baker. Costumes Lucy W. Corrigan. Running time: one hour, 50 minutes.

* At selected theaters.

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