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Four in One


I think adulthood began in earnest for me when I was 26 years old and one of my three best friends (I'll call him Chuck) told me he was getting divorced. My college gang all got married right out of school. And we all naturally expected that we'd live happily ever after.

But then before we'd even finished graduate school, before life had really shown all its opportunities, one of us faced heartbreak. Chuck's wife (I'll call her Sally) had left him, he told me. And worse, he felt, she'd left him not for another guy, but for a woman. Chuck loved Sally deeply (and does to this day), and his sorrow at his divorce was all the greater because he came to understand that he couldn't even compete for Sally's romantic affections, as he might with another man, because Sally was sexually oriented toward those of her own gender. Chuck's story still affects me, still makes me sad when I think about how people hurt each other sometimes when they don't want to. And that memory probably accounts for why I am less hostile to Paddy Breathnach's Blow Dry than the picture no doubt deserves.

Blow Dry reminds me of the ad for Doublemint gum: "It's two mints, two mints, two mints in one." Times two. It's four films, four films, four films in one. The split personality of this movie will drive most viewers to distraction, and I will concede that I was persistently annoyed.

The picture presumably intends to join a host of British comedies like Brassed Off, Little Voice, Saving Grace, and, of course, The Full Monty in examining the unexpectedly colorful lives of small-town Brits far from the bustle and glamour of London. In this regard, it aims at territory explored in America by Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman and his lesser, more recent Best of Show. The people of the Yorkshire town of Keighley are largely indifferent to their mayor's decision to host this year's Silver Scissors competition, which awards prizes to teams of hairdressers competing in such contests as Timed Blow Dry, Men's Free Style, Hair by Night and the like. But then, a dysfunctional local family gets involved, and Keighley's citizens start to take note.

Promising, perhaps. But along the way, the flick takes an abrupt left turn into ham-handed and all too infrequently funny farce. We get close-ups of a man clipping his nose hairs. Stylists practice their craft on corpses and mousse someone's beloved deceased uncle until he looks like Sid Vicious. Like a flower photographed in time lapse, the mayor evolves overnight from a powdered stiff to a sequined Tom Jones wannabe. And then the hoary contest formula mixes in as contestants cheat while others overcome impossible obstacles. In the end, we witness the most bizarre and hideous hair-dos since Medusa was turning men to stone. The winning entry appears as if someone has glued a giant gyroscope to the top of a woman's head. And we ache to cry out: "But why?"

The credits may give a clue as to how this flick went bad. No writer is directly credited. But the film is said to be based on the screenplay Never Better by Simon Beaufoy. Boy, does that ever sound like a compromise billing. Beaufoy, who wrote The Full Monty, takes writing credit only for a screenplay that goes by another name. Do you think perhaps Beaufoy and director Breathnach failed to share the same vision? Whatever, the picture fails to cohere both tonally and narratively. We haven't a clue why it matters that the team of competitors who are the film's villains can't get lodging in the competition hotel and have to take rooms in a country boarding house. We know the relatives of the deceased uncle do something physically retributive to the young corpse coiffeur, but we don't know what or why it matters that they do. And we know one of the hair models demands that her brother-in-law shave and dye her pubic hair into a ruby red heart. But we know neither why, nor how, she plans to keep this hair style choice a secret from her husband.

And still ... still, part of the film really does work. It has a great cast. And in studying the dynamics of a fractured family, the film is insightful and affecting. Years ago, Phil Allen (Alan Rickman) was a champion contest stylist. But then his beloved wife Shelly (Natasha Richardson) ran off with their hair model, Sandra (Rachel Griffiths), and everybody has been seriously at odds ever since. Now, though, Shelly is dying of cancer and wants to bring everybody back together before she dies. Phil and Sandra have to surrender their mutual grudges and find the common ground they share in loving the same woman. Here, hard truths are told. Shelly is honest when she says that Phil was always the only man for her. And these many years later, she loves him even while her genes demand that Sandra remains her great sexual passion. Life can be sad in exactly this way. And films with better construction and better control routinely fail to reveal nearly so much.

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