BEAUTIFUL

“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.