REVIEW: Beastly, Despite Its Heartthrob Stars, Is Hardly Pretty
A teen-idol vehicle with the ultimate aim of leaving the young misses combusting in the aisles, Beastly takes little care with its task, dumping gasoline and gun powder where it might rig a modest array of fireworks. A twist on the Beauty and the Beast story that turns a cyborg-handsome high schooler's pernicious vanity into a teachable moment, Beastly manages to show you all the ways it might have worked by missing every available mark, sometimes by the gaping expanse between Alex Pettyfer's ears, sometimes only by the feline curl of Vanessa Hudgens' smile.
Pettyfer plays Kyle, a senior who makes it clear in the opening scene that winning student council president is strictly a status thing, and who is cynical enough about the power of his good looks to inform his fellow students how little such an admission matters to his campaign. Watching this display are both Lindy (Hudgens), the bookish wallflower with the slightly self-betraying crush on the class himbo, and Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen), the goth virago who knows how to hold a grudge. A brief sequence at home is meant to explain Kyle's extreme inner ugliness: His father (Peter Krause) is a hotshot TV anchor of almost sociopathic negligence.
The problem with Kyle's father is the same problem that ties up the rest of the film in tonal limbo: He is a villain in neither a fantastical nor a recognizably human way. Kyle's cruelties to those around him, from Kendra to his Jamaican maid Zola (LisaGay Hamilton), are similarly, gratuitously outlandish; they don't make sense even if you don't know that rich New York boys are generally owned by the immigrant ladies who raised them. Kyle is set up as more of a gargoyle than a character; his transformation is fixed to a starting point that feels false and immobile. The nature of male vanity -- which has always seemed to me even more of a pity than a character flaw -- and the vulgarity of Kyle's self-image are invoked without being explored. Maybe Pettyfer's hotness is supposed to see us through?
When Kyle makes a show of humiliating witchy Kendra, she casts a spell that disfigures his pretty face. Unless he can get someone to love him in the next year, he will forever look like he was punked in his sleep by a pre-schooler armed with silly putty and a puffy pen. (Actually, Pettyfer's transformation leaves him looking a lot like one of the road warrior aliens sent to kill his character last month in I Am Number Four.) His father immediately exiles him to Brooklyn (zounds!) and assigns a tutor named Will (Neil Patrick Harris) to attend to him, along with Zola. Will is blind and also seems to have his own personal scriptwriter -- his zingers have a knowing freshness, where the rest of the screenplay (adapted by director Daniel Barnz from Alex Finn's young adult novel) alternates between abrupt whiffs of cheese (Lindy is into "sappy, soppy longhand love letters") and groveling for snarky props.
Kyle begins nursing a fixation on Lindy from his lair, and so when a creaky contrivance involving her drug-addict dad necessitates a stay in a safehouse, she moves into the House of Ugg, not suspecting that her benefactor is the guy she stalks on MySpace. The two have a decent rapport, but the script doesn't give them much to dig into; it's never clear whether Kyle is going for self-interested results -- as with his student-council bid -- or actually falling in love.
There is at least one moment when a more satisfying version of this story flashes by: During a moonlight trip to the zoo Kyle confesses the place's personal significance: "I've never taken anyone here before," he says, and the sadness and wonder Pettyfer's voice suggest the extent to which he is discovering himself as someone with a past, and a story. It's more effective than the game of emotional involvement he learns to play with Lindy (he needs to be taught how to engage another person emotionally) at drawing a character out of those dreamy eyes. Though those are fine too, as far as they go -- which is to say about as far as any tween throwaway flick might.