Beastly: Starring Alex Pettyfer, Hollywood’s Next Big Thing?

The British former model, Alex Pettyfer, is touted as the “next big thing” in Hollywood, but judging by his two back to back films, “I Am Number Four” and “Beastly” (opening March 4), he is objectively attractive but not particularly interesting to look at and tp listen to, due to his stiff screen presence and amateurish acting.

According to his bio, Pettyfer is 20, but he looks and behaves much older, which was a problem in “I Am Number Four,” in which he played a high-schooler, but is less of a problem in the new picture, perhaps because of the physical transformations.

As written and directed by Daniel Barnz, “Beastly,” a presumably updated version of the classic fable, is an inept film, based on bad decisions made from the process of conception all the way to execution.  In fact, there is nothing good or enjoyable about it—except its brief running time (85minutes according to my watch)

An inventive writer and interesting director could have found a new or fresh angle in making a modern adaptation of the fable “Beauty and the Beauty”, one that will speak to today’s younger viewers.

The original narrative of the fairytale (by Mme. Leprince Beaumont) has been overworked, in American and French films, as a serious drama and even a musical.  My favorite version is the 1946 French film, “La Belle et la Bette,” made by the poet-filmmaker Jean Cocteau and starring the legendary actor Jean Marais, who played Avenant/The Beast/The Prince), perhaps because it was the first one I saw.

But in 1991, Disney made a rather satisfying animated musical, “Beauty and the Beast,” an Oscar-winning film that charmed audiences, partly due to the melodic score and songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

All this is by way of saying that there is room for another adaptation of the fable whose message is universal.  But alas one of the many problems of Barnz’s version is that even the message gets confused, a result of the shallow, misguided approach to the material.

In Barnz’s film, high-school pretty boy Kyle (Pettyfer) is inflicted with slashes, tattoos, and scars by his witch-like classmate, Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen), whom he initially and contemptuously refers to “Frankenskank.”

As a result, he doesn’t look exactly ugly or bestial but twisted and exotic; I will not be surprised if some girls find Kyle’s new look sexy.

Kendra’s inflictions are her form of punishment of a guy who’s rich, selfish, narcissistic, and downright mean. Passionately in love with his own appearance, all he can think about is the immediate gratification of his own needs.

Ignorant of politics and unaware of environmental issues, Kyle asks his classmates to vote him as president of the “Green Committee” because he is attractive!

The filmmakers make a mistake by offering a psychological explanation for Kyle’s misconduct—he’s a product of bad education and abuse by his own father, who does not hesitate to lock him away from society when Kyle becomes “unpresentable.”

What’s a lonely guy to do?  To break the spell, he begins to think about Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens, of “High School Musical” fame), another social misfit, but a girl that’s also sensitive and intelligent.

The screenplay, based on Alex Flinn’s novel (which I have not read) that modernizes “Beauty and the Beast,” is banal and full of clichés.

Main problem is the shallowness of the tale and the fact that Kyle is just as phony and unappealing after his physical and psychological transformation as he had been before that.

There are other flaws in the writing.  It’s strange that a sensitive and cerebral girl will not notice more quickly the words in Kyle’s eyebrows (“Embrace” and “Suck”).

Inexplicably and arbitrarily, the tale suddenly switches from New York to Peru (Machu Picchu).  It’s unclear how Lindy gets there, which would not have mattered if the text was coherent and engaging in other ways.

None of the three leads gives a creditable or compelling performance, and the fact that there is more chemistry between Kyle and the witch makes things worse. It may be a matter of taste, but Mary Kate-Olsen looks hotter and sexier than love interest Hudgens.

The secondary cast is better, adding color to the proceedings, though the actors play minor, thankless, underdeveloped roles.

Neil Patrick Harris registers strongly as Kyle’s blind tutor, and he may be the only character in the movie to offer some humor.  It’s good to see again, even in a small part, Lisa Gay Hamilton) as a Jamaican maid, who instructs Kyle in matters of courtship and romance.

As a director, Barnz acquits himeself even less honorably than as a writer.  I was vastly unimpressed with the Sundance indie that he made several years ago, “Phoebe in Wonderland.”

For a movie that relies on sorcery and witchcraft, there is very little magic in the entire picture, which strikes me as one long series of miscalculations.