To paraphrase Bart Simpson, this new comedy written by Simon Beaufoy, who penned the smash “The Full Monty,” proves that it’s possible for a movie to simultaneously blow and suck. The script, about a national hairdressing competition held in a backwater town in northern England, strains for the same combination of quirky humor and grittiness that marked the earlier film, but it achieves neither, coming across instead as labored, unfunny and totally charmless. Sitting through it is about as pleasant as spending ninety minutes under a hair dryer set on high; the experience might just fry your brain.
The set-up has the Lord High Mayor of Keighley (Warren Clarke, whom you might recognize as the scowling older half of the British detective team on “Dalziel and Pascoe”), a one-horse Yorkshire burg, announcing to widespread yawns among the locals (soon to spread to the audience) that he’s persuaded the responsible parties to choose their town as host of the upcoming contest, which will pit the best hairdressers from all the British Isles against one another. Among the competitors will be the reigning champion, a thoroughly unscrupulous fellow (Bill Nighy), who brings along his American daughter Christina (Rachael Leigh Cook) to learn some tricks of the trade. He also happens to be an old rival of Keighley’s barber Phil (Alan Rickman), who runs a small shop in tandem with his son Brian (John Hartnett). Phil, you see, had once been a premier hairdresser, but abandoned the competitive circuit when his wife Shelley (Natasha Richardson) left him for a relationship with his long-time model Sandra (Rachel Griffiths). Now Shelley and Sandra have a salon across the street from Phil’s place, but they never speak. To set a plot in motion, Shelley approaches Brian–and, through him Phil–to join with her in making up a team for the competition. (She’s got terminal cancer, you see, though she’s keeping that a secret, and wants very much to bond with her former husband and her kid before she kicks off.) Can Phil, Shelley and Sandra overcome years of bitterness, come together as a family again, and, with Brian, win the contest? Can Brian, moreover, reconnect with Christina, whom he knew as a child during happier times, despite her father’s perfidy? Could this premise be any dumber?
Beaufoy answers all these questions with a script that’s heavy on mawkishness, arch humor and utterly preposterous twists and turns. It’s been directed by Paddy Breathnach with a palpable sense of desperation. Breathnach was responsible for 1997’s fetching “I Went Down,” a precursor to Guy Ritchie’s two recent British gangster flicks but a better film than either of them, with a smashing performance by Brendan Gleeson; but here he seems paralyzed by the inanities of the narrative. The actors appear to recognize the impossibility of bringing the material to life, too. They’re a talented group, but they respond to the task either with forced overemphasis (Nighy, Griffiths and Clarke–the latter two looking truly embarrassed when they have to don a succession of “funny” outfits in a doomed attempt to generate laughs) or an air of timid resignation that renders them completely pallid (Rickman and Richardson). Cook’s presence is an obviously attempt to attract young American males, but she’s at best mediocre, and it’s a ploy doomed to fail anyway. The most curious casting choice is clearly Hartnett; why any young American would have been selected to play a Yorkshire barber is beyond me (though he manages the accent well enough by mumbling most of his lines), but Harnett, who boasts what’s probably the unruliest hair in Hollywood, is a particularly odd choice for such a part. Most of the lesser performers overdo things, straining to appear outrageously colorful (ghastly stereotypes abound, as you might imagine, both among the locals and the various other competitors).
If you think that a hairdressing contest is a ripe subject for comedy–a dubious proposition to begin with–you’d be well advised to skip this example of the tiny genre and instead try “The Big Tease,” Craig Ferguson’s slight but amusing 1999 mockumentary about one. As for “Blow Dry,” its original title was “Never Better.” It’s easy to see why that moniker had to go.