Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

As Beautiful Girls opens, three of the four buddies are having serious relationship trouble. Tommy is dating the devoted Sharon (Mira Sorvino) but seeing his now-married high-school girlfriend (Lauren Holly) on the sly. Paul has just broken up with Jan (Martha Plimpton), his girlfriend of seven years, because she’s “pressuring” him for a commitment. Willie is living with his girlfriend Tracy (Annabeth Gish) but can’t seem to shake his ambivalence about the relationship. Meanwhile, Mo exemplifies healthy family life while Willie’s kid brother and widowed father represent the grim reality of a womanless household.

All three men are stuck—but each at a different point on the dysfunctionality continuum. Tommy’s stagnation is the most clichéd: He’s the loser who peaked in high school, and his old girlfriend evokes bygone glory days. (She’s got little else to recommend her, and she uses the worst come-on line ever: “You can slip into something more comfortable—like me.”) Paul lives in a pinup-strewn room and still listens to A Flock of Seagulls and Split Enz. Willie seems to have left high school the furthest behind him, but when the friends are together, it’s business as usual. They drink heavily, use locker-room slang, rate women numerically, and, at one point, engage in that most dreaded of cinematic events, the group sing-along (to—go ahead and flinch—Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”)

The film is at its most original when it explores the means that Willie and Paul use to keep adult relationships at bay. Willie falls into conversation with Marty (Natalie Portman), the precocious 13-year-old next door, and soon finds himself utterly smitten with her. His crush is not at all sexual—or even romantic in the traditional sense. He’s simply enraptured with the promise that she represents, and it is to Hutton’s credit that he conveys this complex reaction without coming across like a pervert. Paul uses supermodels the same way Willie uses Marty. That is, he finds it comfortable and nonthreatening to desire them because they don’t represent real-world options. Paul expresses this in a torturously overblown monologue in which he terms the magazine images “hope dancing in stiletto heels.”

Much of Beautiful Girls is concerned with the same truisms about men and relationships that have emerged from every guy-pic from Diner to The Brothers McMullen, though its focus on male ideas about female physicality is somewhat unusual. Inattentive viewers may not even notice that the film’s title is an ironic one; the movie is about how the notion of “beautiful girls” messes up men’s lives. (And it’s beautiful girls, not women, for a reason. These men can’t cope with adult women.) The movie hammers gracelessly and relentlessly at its point: Andrea (Uma Thurman), for instance, appears on the scene for the express purpose of illustrating that beautiful girls are just regular folks, once you get to know ’em. The next day, local girl Gina (Rosie O’Donnell, of course) delivers a fiery harangue about male illusions while brandishing a copy of Penthouse. Ultimately, though, the movie lacks the courage of its convictions: If it were realistic, all its male characters would end up alone at film’s end.

The Beautiful Girls press kit repeatedly uses the phrase “character-driven” to describe the film. (This meaningless Hollywood designation implies that there’s such a thing as drama that isn’t character-driven; the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of the term is “guitar-based.”) At any rate, the phrase will never, ever, be applied to The Juror. If this film were character-driven, it would wreck before it left the driveway.

Brian Gibson’s one-dimensional suspense thriller is a remarkable tour de force of bad acting. Alec Baldwin plays an obsessive Mafia operative who is charged with intimidating juror Demi Moore until she agrees to render a “not guilty” verdict at the trial of his boss. The book-based script is by Ted Tally, who also adapted The Silence of the Lambs for the screen, and it’s clear that the film aspires to the same sort of psychological shading. Unfortunately, Anthony Hopkins is nowhere in sight. Context alone makes it possible to infer that Baldwin’s character is supposed to be menacing and Moore’s spirited.

Annie Laird (Moore) is a bohemian sculptor who lives with her teenage son in an ultracool remodeled barn. After she is selected for jury duty in the case of a notorious mob boss, a mysterious stranger (Baldwin) buys several pieces of her work. In a move calculated to let the prop department off the hook, Annie does tactile sculpture—big boxes with holes in the bottom that people reach into, feeling what’s inside. They also allow her to dole out idiotic double-entendres like, “Would you like to feel another one?” Annie quickly discovers that the buyer is no art patron: Known as “the Teacher,” he’s a hit man who’s been using the latest in electronic surveillance equipment to monitor her every move. The Teacher exacts Annie’s cooperation by threatening to kill her son. (Interestingly, the film’s press kit implies that Annie is susceptible to this threat because she’s a single mother who isn’t dating, and must therefore have an undue attachment to her boy. Any other mother, of course, would respond with a sassy, “Go ahead—make my day.”)

Those parts of The Juror that aren’t wildly implausible are often just plain dumb. In the scene that marks the climax of the Teacher’s intimidation scheme, for instance, he takes Annie in a speeding car to the stretch of road along which her son bicycles home from school. As the boy looms into view, the Teacher presses the accelerator to the floor, insisting that she follow his orders. Obviously, neither Annie nor her tormentor is very bright: At this point, the jury has not yet deliberated, and running down her son would be roughly equivalent to killing a hostage before demanding the ransom money. This isn’t the only evidence of mental incapacity on the part of the film’s main characters. The Teacher can’t remember to keep the door to his high-tech surveillance headquarters locked, while Annie is so dimwitted she buys airline tickets in her real name while on the run from the mob. (The Juror makes no allowances for audience savvy, either. In one scene, the Teacher has sex with a woman and then locks her in a stranglehold and makes her swallow pills—we later learn that she “killed herself.” In a time when detective fiction tops the best-seller lists, everybody and their grandmother knows that there’d be more than enough forensic evidence to rule out suicide.)

The audience may snicker at such gaffes, but it’s the filmmakers who have the last laugh. The only reason to see either of these actors in any movie at all is in the hopes that they’ll take their clothes off, and both remain fully garbed throughout.CP