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The video-rental business is sputtering, and one explanation might be that there’s really no reason for mainstream-movie buffs to check out the films they’ve recently missed. In a matter of yearsand sometimes monthsyesterday’s also-rans will be recombined into new (well, newish) flicks. Take, for example, Blow Dry. It’s basically last year’s The Big Teasesmall-town Scottish stylist goes to L.A. to compete in a hairdressing competition he’s not entitled to entercrossed with The Full Monty.
In one of the strangest movie credits of recent years, Blow Dry’s script is “based on the screenplay Never Better by Simon Beaufoy.” This leaves many questions unanswered, but it does suggest strongly that Beaufoy, who wrote The Full Monty as well as Among Giants, is not pleased with the Miramaxed final result. The phrase “never better,” after all, is uttered by Shelley (Natasha Richardson) in response to a question about her health. Because Shelley is dying of cancer, the movie’s former title indicates that Beaufoy had something fairly dark in mind.
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In fact, much of the movie’s premise is prickly: Shelley was married to Phil (Alan Rickman) before she ran off with his hair model, Sandra (Rachel Griffiths), leaving behind both Phil and their son, Brian (Josh Hartnett). They didn’t run too far, however. Both Phil and Shelley operate hair salons in the small Yorkshire town of Keighly, which has improbably been selected as the site of 2000’s British national hairdressing competition. Neither bitter Phil nor plucky Shelley (who hasn’t told any of her intimates that she’s dying) plans to compete, but Brian is excited by the prospect. The contest has the potential to be a grudge match with a Romeo and Juliet twist: The lumpily blended family of Phil, Shelley, Sandra, and Brian would be opposing Phil’s old nemesis Ray (Bill Nighy), an arrogant, unscrupulous Londoner whose American-accented daughter, Christina (Rachael Leigh Cook), is Brian’s new flame.
The youngsters bond when Brian takes Christina to practice her hair-dyeing techniques on corpses at the local morgue, in just one of the movie’s flamboyant touches. There’s also a subplot involving a model (actual model Heidi Klum) who wants an exciting new coiffurefor her pubic hair. Another big moment involves a model whose costume involves mostly body paint. And because Yorkshire is sheep-farming country, you can safely presume that not only humans will get new looks before the festivities are concluded.
Lesbians, nudity, and cadavers aside, however, Blow Dry is aggressively nonconfrontational. It lacks the class-war bark of The Full Monty or the Tarantinoish bark of I Went Down, Irish director Paddy Breathnach’s previous film. Instead, the movie is populated with colorful rural eccentrics of the sort who muck up so many comedies set in Ireland (where the film was partly shot) or provincial Britain. Typical is Keighly’s Lord Mayor, who begins by striving to uphold the dignity of his office but is gradually transformed by the glitter of the competition. Perhaps in Never Better, the mayor serves as a metaphor for small-town Britain’s desperate willingness to make itself into anything Hollywood requires. In Blow Dry, however, he’s just another one of those mildly diverting Old World types that Miramax periodically trots by on its way to the video store.
When The Caveman’s Valentine was published, in 1994, George Dawes Green’s thriller might have seemed as if it had been ripped from the headlines. By now, however, the premise has yellowed badly. Eight years after Danny Glover played a benevolent homeless man in The Saint of Fort Washington, Samuel L. Jackson’s star turn as schizophrenic urban cave-dweller Romulus “Caveman” Ledbetter seems very first-Clinton-administration. So does the tale’s villain, pompous celebrity artist David Leppenraub (Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould star Colm Feore), who’s accused of tormenting one of his models to death in a gay S&M torture chamberwhich would have been an ideal mid-’90s Village Voice cover story (assuming it wasn’t actually one).
In his introductory scenes, Jackson gives a credible portrayal of a park-dwelling paranoid who’s convinced that a supernatural nemesis, Stuyvesant, is tormenting him with green rays from the Chrysler Building. When Romulus discovers a body frozen in a tree near his cave, however, the plot requires him to become an efficient amateur detective, balancing his sporadic delusional outbursts with Sherlock Holmes-ian deductive brilliance.
Informed by a young homeless compatriot that the frozen man is the victim of Leppenraub’s twisted lust, the tattered, unwashed Romulus arranges a shower, a new suit, and an invitation to a party at Leppenraub’s exurban studio. (The first two are provided by no less anachronistic a personage than Anthony Michael Hall.) Romuluswho turns out to be a former Juilliard genius undone by a brain-frying case of stage frightplays a vaguely John Adams-like piano composition, accuses Leppenraub of murder, gets thrown off the property, and then goes back to see the artist’s arty oddball sister, Moira (played by arty oddball Ann Magnuson). “You’re psychotic, aren’t you?” she says as she takes him to bed. (Let this be a lesson to guys who fruitlessly try to pick up chicks by feigning sanity.) Ultimately, Romulus cracks the case and catches the murderer, thus endearing himself to his policewoman daughter, Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), who sometimes seems a little put out that her old man is, well, nuts.
Presumably, this filial bond is what drew director Kasi Lemmons to the film; a similar relationship was at the heart of Eve’s Bayou, her feature debut, which also starred Jackson. The disappointed daughter and unreliable father are not integral to this tale, however. Romulus lives in a cave in a New York park rather than on Baker Street, and his delusions give Lemmons the opportunity for green-tinted psychedelic montages, but the movie nonetheless relies on the conventions of the Victorian detective yarn. Indeed, The Caveman’s Valentine’s glib, tidy approach is more 1890s than 1990s. CP