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Blow Dry  

Alan Rickman...............Phil
Natasha Richardson.........Shelley
Bill Nighy.................Alan
Rachel Griffiths...........Sandra
Josh Hartnett..............Brian
Rachael Leigh Cook.........Christina
Hugh Bonneville............Louis

Directed by: Paddy Breathnach

Written by: Simon Beaufoy

Rated R for some language and brief nudity

Blow Dry
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I generally have a difficult time with narrative juxtapositions like the one offered by the British comedy "Blow Dry," a movie that wants to make us laugh with its biting take on a hairdressing competition while hoping to gain our sympathy by having one of the characters face an incurable disease. Rarely do you see a scene involving a heartbroken, cancer-stricken mother explaining to her family she only has a few months to live followed moments later by a scene where a model has her pubic hair cut to form the shape of a heart. The filmmakers were certainly anticipating a wide target audience.


The story takes place in a small England town where the announcement that it will be the home of this years most prestigious hairdressing competition is met with considerable apathy, except from the town's high-spirited mayor (Hugh Bonneville). Eager to have some of its own citizens as participants, the mayor asks a former stylist named Shelley (Natasha Richardson) is she'd be interested. But Shelley has too many of her own problems to worry about, most notably the frightening news that the chemotherapy isn't working. Also, she doesn't believe she would stand a chance without the assistance of her estranged husband, Phil (Alan Rickman), a master stylist who has relinquished the glamour of competition for a much quieter existence, running a small barber shop called "A Cut Above" with their son, Brian (Josh Hartnett). They are divorced, you see, because during their last competition, Shelley suddenly fell in love with a spirited model named Sandra (Rachel Griffiths) and subsequently ran away with her. Consumed with the pain of being humiliated, Phil now mopes around his shop, unwilling to acknowledge her existence. He eventually changes his mind upon realization that his number one hairstyling nemesis (Bill Nighy) is cheating. The torn apart family must find a way to bind together so they may win the competition as well as bring peace back into their respective lives.

This is the kind of movie that seems to echo damage control. The melodramatic subplot isn't developed enough to have any kind of impact, which leads me to believe that screenwriter Simon Beaufoy didn't think the comic material could hold up on its own. I tend to agree. The humorous elements never seem to achieve the level of pungency required for this kind of film. However, the solution shouldn't have been the utilization of manipulative tear-jerking subplots, but rather more rewrites or a different story altogether. To sharply poke fun at something and to gain sympathy play to the most diametrical ends of the human condition. You can't laugh at something and sympathize with it at the same moment.

The cast does their best in playing up both elements, yet even the actors seem a bit confused regarding what type of film this is. As the estranged husband and wife, Alan Rickman and Natasha Richardson seem to lean more toward the dramatic aspect, brooding over their respective situations more than anything else. Bill Nighy, as the pompous hairstyling nemesis and Hugh Bonneville, as the plucky mayor lean more toward comedy, playing up each one's goofy obsession with the competition itself. The bright, young up-and-comers Josh Hartnett and Rachael Lee Cook aren't given enough to do. The wonderful but too often underappreciated Rachel Griffiths emerges the strongest, bringing together both the comic and dramatic elements into a sweet performance, even though the script fails her.

My overall negative reaction to the movie is based upon the assumption that it was supposed to be a comedy above anything else. Could an argument be made that the film was intended more as a drama with a comic undertone? Absolutely. That's my point. Like the pompous participants in the competition, the movie proudly and colorfully perches itself atop its premise, but what it really needed to do was pick a side and come down off the fence.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

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