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BEAUTIFUL

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“Beautiful” isn’t. Sally Field’s directorial debut is a hopelessly mirthless, intensely irritating comedy-drama that wants to say something about the cult of surface attractiveness and celebrity prevalent in today’s society, but garbles whatever message it has in mind so badly that it’s nearly unwatchable.

The star of this misbegotten women’s picture is the personable Minnie Driver, who plays Mona Hibbard, a young woman who, since her earliest years, has dreamt of winning beauty contests and expended virtually all of her time and energy to that end. Unfortunately, from the perspective of audience sympathy, Mona is portrayed as nothing more than a self-centered shrew, who, when she becomes pregnant, palms off the child on her footstool of a best friend Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams, acting like a bargain-basement Renee Zellweger), who raises the kid as hers. Even more unfortunately, the child, named Vanessa, grows up to become Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the kid from the “Pepsi” commercials, whose shrill, piercing performance is the cinematic equivalent of a paper cut; though Vanessa is supposed to be a darling, one of those bright moppets who put adults to shame, as Eisenberg plays her she comes across as one of the most unendearing, annoying tykes to find their way to the screen in a long while. (One hates to say it, but you can almost understand why Mona dumps her.)

Anyway, the plot sickens when Mona, who’s unaccountably chosen as Miss Illinois, prepares to go off to the national competition, only to find herself saddled with Vanessa when false mom Ruby is jailed (wrongly, of course) for–get this!–aiding in the suicide of a patient at the nursing home where she works. The denouement has Mona inevitably finding her long-dormant maternal instinct as the beauty pageant winds its way to a completely ridiculous “uplifting” outcome.

Nothing works in “Beautiful.” The dismal work of the three leads is complemented by equally bad turns from such figures as Kathleen Turner (as a grande dame who runs local pageants), Leslie Stefanson (as an ambitious reporter who aims to unmask Mona), Bridgette Wilson (as the inevitable Miss Texas–her last major flick was the equally dreadful “Love Stinks”), and Michael McKean (as the pageant director). Jon Bernstein’s script manages to be both cruelly unfunny and crudely sentimental, garnering nary a smile or a tear, and Field’s direction is at best of TV-movie quality. Natives of Illinois should be especially distessed by the picture, which portrays Naperville as a hick town of unimaginable proportions, and has Mona, in one of her appearances at the final pageant, dress up in a phony Indian costume that would rightfully draw condemnations of ethnic insensitivity if a contestant in such an event ever had the temerity to wear it.

Maybe you’ll be able to get through “Beautiful” and still find Miss Field a fairly likable person, despite what she’s foisted upon you. But as for the movie itself–you’ll hate it, you’ll really hate it.

AUTUMN IN NEW YORK

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The sap might not be streaming down the trees of Central Park in the innumerable scenes set there in Joan Chen’s slick but hollow sudser about a May-September romance between a middle-aged, woman-chasing restaurateur and a 22-year old girl doomed by illness (who just happens to be the daughter of one of his old flames), but it’s practically encrusted on the screens of auditoriums showing this monumental piece of treacle. Chen made a deeply affecting debut feature, the astonishingly assured “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl,” in 1998, but she’s stumbled badly with her first big-studio effort. Not a single moment of “Autumn in New York” rings remotely true, nor even one line of dialogue even slightly real, and it lurches from one Big Moment to the next so clumsily that one gets the feeling that large chunks of narrative were lopped out at the last moment (though that hardly seems cause for distress, given the quality of what remains). At once crushingly trite and oppressively maudlin, the picture has echoes old chestnuts like “Dark Victory” (1939) but utterly lacks the soapoperatic energy that enlivened such classic pieces of schmaltzy claptrap; instead, it’s just a dismal dirge.

One might have expected Julia Roberts to have teamed up with Richard Gere once more in a lugubrious weepie that could easily have been titled “Pretty Dying Woman,” but she probably passed either because she’s been down the terminally-ill lover route before (in 1991’s dreadful Joel Schumacher opus “Dying Young”) or because she quickly realized that although it’s the distaff partner who’s got heart trouble, the narrative is really centered on the guy. And so we watch Gere, that most self-absorbed of actors (if the myth of Narcissus is ever brought to the screen, he’s a cinch for the lead), overemoting balefully for some ninety minutes as an overaged Peter Pan who finally gains maturity by falling for a gal he can’t hold onto (his character, Will, even makes contact with the Daughter He Never Knew in the course of the narrative, showing how much he’s grown emotionally). Gere is supposed to be irresistible as a fellow whose flippancy turns first to woozy ardor and then to profound grief, but what he oozes here is hardly charm; even at the close, when he’s going crazy over his lover’s deteriorating condition, his pain seems to be all about himself rather than her, and in both his initial smugness and later distress he comes across as quite insufferable. Winona Ryder’s performance as perky, pitiful Charlotte is no less corrupt. She plays the character as though the poor girl were mentally impaired, alternately scrunching up her face embarrassingly to suggest naivete and beaming bug-eyed at the glitzy events to which Will escorts her as though she had never been out in public before–except, of course, for those moments when she overexerts herself and suddenly gets all weak and trembly. (Toward the close, of course, she takes to bed as Will summons a Supersurgeon, played by J.K. Simmons, the shrink from “Law and Order,” to save her. The incapacitation may not provide any relief to Charlotte but at least saves viewers from any more of her scrunchy faces.) The picture is pretty much a two-character affair, so the supporting players don’t have any great opportunity to make their mark; but Anthony LaPaglia gets a few smiles as Will’s sourpuss maitre d’, and Elaine Stritch is certainly noticeable–though hardly in a positive way–as Charlotte’s besotted grandmother. Jill Hennessy, another “Law and Order” player, appears as Will’s long-forgotten daughter, and Mary Beth Hurt shows up in a couple of brief scenes as Charlotte’s physician, but neither does anything beyond looking sad, which they do professionally enough.

One shouldn’t blame the actors too much, though. The material given them is so clearly subpar, and Chen’s direction so solemn and flaccid, that they never had a chance. Mushy and mawkish, with its hamfistedness accentuated by Changwei Gu’s prettified cinematography and Gabriel Yared’s gooey score (far too heavy on the harps), “Autumn in New York” is, in the final analysis, a failed tearjerker at whose denouement there probably won’t be a wet eye in the house. During one of their interminable outdoor chats in the picture, poor Charlotte remarks to Will that for the first time she can actually smell a recent rainfall. The odor emanating from the screen, however, will surely strike viewers as redolent of something far more pungent. By opening the flick in early August, MGM has merely insured that it will have vanished from theatres long before the coming of its titular season.