Beastly: Update of Classic Aimed at Teenage Girls

By Jeff Farr

Aimed squarely at teenage girls, “Beastly,” an update of the classic tale “Beauty and the Beast,” delivers the eye candy–rising British star Alex Pettyfer, who has three Hollywood movies this year—but not much else.

As charmingly kooky as they can be, this film’s flights of fantasy overwhelm everything in their way, resulting in an underwhelming picture in several respects.

Directed by Daniel Barnz and based on a novel by Alex Flinn, “Beastly” has a clunky premise that takes much too long to pull itself together. Basically, the filmmakers are determined to get the beauty (Vanessa Hudgens) and the beast (Pettyfer) locked up together so that they will be forced to fall in love. But getting there becomes way more complicated—and more unbelievable—than need be.

When we first meet the beast-to-be, Kyle, he is the princely star of his private high school in Manhattan, who unabashedly pronounces to his classmates that “beautiful people get it better—that’s just the way it is!” This line is taken from his campaign speech, no less, to become the school’s next Green Committee president.

We soon learn what is driving Kyle’s hubris: neglect at home, an overly familiar premise.  Kyle lives with his father (Peter Krause of TV’s “Six Feet under” fame), a TV anchor who has never had time for his son and has beat into him this “beautiful people” ethos.

“Beastly” is one of those teen preachy movies where the message—in this case, “Beauty is on the inside”—similarly gets beaten into viewers. You have to wonder if the filmmakers are not underestimating teen intelligence. Or is it just that they look down on their audience?

Kyle gets into some trouble with the high school witch (Mary-Kate Olsen) when, upon his election, he asks her out on a date only to embarrass her in public.

As a result, she casts a nasty spell on him, which turns him into a scarred, tattooed skinhead whom no doctor can bring back to “normal.”

Kyle is given one year to improve himself—to the point where, despite his new looks, someone will say “I love you” and really mean it—or the mess on his face stays that way for good.

The truth is that many viewers may find the “ugly” version of Kyle more attractive, sexier even (think Elias Koteas in David Cronenberg’s “Crash”), than his bland, blonde, fluffy former self.

That “I love you” is certainly not going to come from Kyle’s father. Dad decides to hide Kyle away in a safe house in Brooklyn, basically a mansion overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. It is hard for us to feel too sorry for Kyle in sweet digs like that, which he nevertheless keeps likening to “hell.” Plus he is hardly alone there: his wise Jamaican housekeeper (Lisa Gay Hamilton) comes along to wait on him, and they are soon joined by his new tutor (Neil Patrick Harris).

Their little family becomes a foursome when—hold your breath—Kyle becomes obsessed with Lindy (Hudgens), an intelligent beauty from his school whom he never noticed much before, starts to stalk her every night, discovers that she has an addict father, and forces the father to let him essentially kidnap her, ostensibly to protect her from the father’s violent dealers. Or something like that.

Despite weak performances from the young leads, the film picks up some steam when everyone is on lockdown in Brooklyn. Kyle is consumed with winning Lindy’s affections and for some reason with her not finding out his true identity. Harris and Hamilton carry the show here, watching over the two would-be lovebirds and dispensing the expected advice whenever they get a chance. Unfortunately, that is about as far as their supporting roles go. We never see Harris and his protégée study a thing together, and nothing much is made of the tutor’s blindness. Hamilton’s character is another sad stereotype of a black servant full of love for her rude white master, the film’s biggest misstep.

The movie suffers from other major problems: There is more chemistry between Pettyfer and Harris than between Pettyfer and Hudgens. We are almost ready for the beast and his mentor to run off together into the happily ever after.

The film reaches a goofy apex when Kyle invites Lindy to join his nonexistent tutoring and becomes frantic about what they should pretend to be studying. He finally comes up with—get this—Frank O’Hara’s poem “Having a Coke With You,” which he haltingly reads to Lindy in the greenhouse he has built on the roof to impress her, as the CGI seasons quickly change around them, signifying months going by. What in the world would O’Hara think of this craziness?

Wait, maybe that was not the goofy apex after all: later, Kyle and Lindy sneak into the zoo to watch a film about an elephant mother mourning over the bones of her deceased offspring. Will Kyle and Lindy be able to achieve this level of elephant passion before Kyle’s year runs out? Will true love blossom before Lindy leaves on the school field trip to Machu Picchu, for which she, being a scholarship student, has been scrimping and saving for many years? And will Lindy ever be able to say those three magic words to her damaged suitor and learn that he is actually the hottest of the hot at her school?

The climax comes when Kyle courageously returns to campus to profess his love to Lindy, while the PA overhead continually announces—no kidding—that “the bus to Machu Picchu will be leaving in five minutes.”

There is something admirable about such brazenly nutty filmmaking, but you cannot help thinking that the movie’s target audience deserves better. I even thought of starting my own “It gets better” campaign to console the young people at the screening I attended: just hang in there, kids, there will be better movies for you soon. There has to be.

Cast

Kyle – Alex Pettyfer

Lindy – Vanessa Hudgens

Kendra – Mary-Kate Olsen

Zola – Lisa Gay Hamilton

Will – Neil Patrick Harris

Rob – Peter Krause

Credits

A CBS Films release.

Directed and written by Daniel Barnz.

Produced by Susan Cartsonis.

Cinematography, Mandy Walker.

Editors, Todd E. Miller, Thomas J. Nordberg.

Music, Marcelo Zarvos.

Sound, Stephen Hunter Flick, Avram D. Gold.

Running time: 97 Minutes.