Said with feelings: 'Girls' needs focus Movie review: Enduring this movie's feckless misery is no better than enduring it in life.


"Beautiful Girls" is only skin deep.

Nominally an account of the angst felt by young men nearing 30 as they struggle with the issue of commitment and their place in the world, it's "Friends" without the wit. Or the acting. Or the tight plot lines. Or the meaning. In other words, it's just like "Friends" in every single particular except aspiration, plus it's not nearly as good.

Set in a small New England town, it plays off the ancient formula of the return of a prodigal son. Willie Conway (Tim Hutton), sometime Manhattan ivory tickler, returns one dreary snowy day to Knight's Ridge, Mass., a town from whose sinews he has never really freed himself.

There, in the way that environments re-invent epochs instantly, he finds himself suddenly the same guy he was, with the same sad dad and brother, the model-clotted room (neat P-40 Warhawk!), the same pals, facing the same issues. It's 10 years ago, except that no one can sink a 20-foot jumper anymore and there's no practice after school, because there's no school. ("Beautiful Girls' " take on adulthood: It's pretty much life without basketball practice.)

His best pal, Tommy (Matt Dillon), has become a professional snow-plower; lives with Sharon (Mira Sorvino), but he can't commit to that relationship; and he's secretly seeing his high school sweetheart, Darian (Lauren Holly), who is married to a prosperous yuppie but can't let the thing with Tommy die.

Another pal, Paul (the ever adenoidal Michael Rapaport), used to be with somebody (Martha Plimpton), but he couldn't ever ask the big question, and now she's with someone else -- the butcher. Willie himself is in remission from a relationship -- he's living with a Manhattan attorney (who turns out to be Annabeth Gish), but he's not sure he wants to be with her.

In fact, Knight's Ridge is not a happy town. Everybody who's with somebody wishes they were with somebody else; everybody who's not with anybody wishes they were with anybody else; and, to make the long, cold, lonely nights pass as numbly as possible, everybody is with one thing constantly, but it's not a person, it's a bottle of beer. These guys might not put Budweiser out of business, but they sure got 'em working nights!

One day, who should show up but the great Uma Thurman, the bar owner's cousin, and a stunner who galvanizes this settled, pitiful male society into some semblance of activity. Uma? Matt. Matt? Uma. Uma? Willie. Willie? Uma. Paul? Uma. Uma? Paul. (But Paul is such an idiot, he blows it badly.)

And, of course, Uma has a boyfriend -- Uma? Boyfriend. Boyfriend? Uma -- about whom she, too, is unsettled. The only certainty in "Beautiful Girls" is the persistence of the crummy weather and the banal dialogue.

Odd relationships pop to life. Natalie Portman has a cameo as a neighbor child with whom Willie had a queasy flirtation, an odd and somewhat destabilizing sequence. Then there's Rosie O'Donnell in a walk-through as the gal-team's den mother, a beauty-salon owner. But it's not a role; it's a walking stand-up routine on the lack of connection between the guys' adolescent fixation on the "beautiful girls" of Playboy and the real live flesh-and-blood beautiful women with whom they must eventually co-habit and procreate. It's the most energetic thing in the movie and is its one great moment -- but it has no organic connection to what else happens.

In fact, all of "Beautiful Girls" is unfocused; it drifts through anecdotes, then flees from their consequences. Perhaps feckless misery is the point, but enduring it in the movie is no more enjoyable than enduring it in life. You keep thinking: Do something, you idiot. Don't open another beer. Don't reach for that six pack! Don't tell me about your feelings.

But these people have no lives at all; they have only feelings, which they wear on their sleeves and rub in our faces.

'Beautiful Girls'

Starring Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Lauren Holly and Uma Thurman

Directed by Ted Demme

Released by Miramax

Rated R (adult situations, profanity)

** 1/2

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