Crazy/Beautiful (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I believe Hollywood has a tendency to underestimate the teenage viewing crowd. While it's certainly true that a portion of that demographic goes to theaters only for the most superficial form of entertainment, there surely must be a thirst amongst high schoolers for movies of a more challenging and less formulaic nature. It is to them that the subject matter of Crazy/Beautiful applies; unfortunately, the narrative fails to live up to its potential. A hybrid of Mad Love and Save the Last Dance, Crazy/Beautiful boasts strong performances underutilized by a banal storyline that manipulates familiar characters into following a well-trodden, predictable path from point A to point B.

Constrained by the need to conform to a safe, expected narrative structure, Crazy/Beautiful never does anything surprising, edgy, or remarkable (except perhaps allowing Kirsten Dunst to appear in unflattering makeup with a lank haircut). The characters are familiar types: the wild girl on the edge; the hard-working, studious boy who is attracted to her like a moth to a flame; the caring father who doesn't understand his daughter; the free-spirited best-friend; and, worst of all, the wicked step-mother. Solid acting gives some of these individuals greater weight and depth than they might normally have, but there are limits beyond which the actors cannot push their on-screen personas.

Nicole (Dunst) is the 17-year old problem daughter of Congressman Tom Oakley (Bruce Davison). She is undisciplined, sullen around the house, and given to alcoholic binges. One day at the beach (where she's doing community service as a result of a DUI conviction), she meets Carlos (Jay Hernandez), who's hanging out with his buddies. There's an immediate connection between them, despite their vastly different backgrounds and divergent personalities. Carlos is from the "wrong side of the tracks" but is working hard to craft an impressive high school resume so he can enter the Naval Academy and become a pilot. Of course, he and Nicole begin to see a lot of each other, which causes friction. Carlos' family does not like the idea of him dating a white girl, and Nicole's father is concerned that his daughter's instability might ruin Carlos' bright future.

In the way things progress, Crazy/Beautiful is a lot like both Save the Last Dance (which featured an interracial teenage romance with all of its associated complications) and Mad Love (in which a strait-laced boy fell for an unstable girl and risked everything to be with her). As was the case with those movies, this one studiously avoids pushing the envelope, giving it the dramatic heft of a made-for-TV movie. The argument in favor of this approach is that kids don't want to see something hard-hitting, but I'm not sure that's an accurate assumption. For example, every teenager I have spoken to who has seen Requiem for a Dream has been astounded by it, and that movie certainly doesn't adhere to cinematic conventions. Would a grittier, more psychologically complex Crazy/Beautiful fare worse at the box office than the carefully sanitized version delivered by director John Stockwell?

Stockwell's epileptic directorial style involves a lot of camera movement and quick edits. Like too many filmmakers weaned on MTV, he doesn't seem to understand the value of a "quiet moment". There are times when the movie's busyness works against the mood it's trying to create; it's difficult to craft a compelling love story when music and visual flourishes keep getting in the way. Plus, he has had to edit around Kirsten Dunst's nudity in order to deliver a product that conforms to PG-13 guidelines (Dunst displays just about everything she can possibly show with this classification).

Freed from the lightweight constraints of the likes of Bring It On, Dunst exhibits impressive dramatic depth (echoing her work in The Virgin Suicides). She brings Nicole to three-dimensional life, and shows courage in her willingness to accept the de-glamorizing necessary for the role (most young actresses are not confident enough to show their ugly duckling side). Jay Hernandez, whose previous body of work has primarily been on television, presents a strong, credible male lead. Most importantly, there is tangible chemistry between Dunst and Hernandez. Character actor Bruce Davison offers an effective portrayal of a conflicted father who loves his daughter but doesn't know how to help her or to prevent her from hurting herself or others. Unfortunately, Lucinda Jenney can't free herself from the orbit of the traditional unsympathetic stepmother.

Crazy/Beautiful is being released as a form of summer "counter-programming" and may easily become lost in the shadow of the many bigger, showier releases. Only sporadically involving, the movie is not strong enough to warrant special attention, and the pervasive sense of "been there, done that" is unlikely to help. In the end, Crazy/Beautiful might have made a more impressive splash, not to mention a better movie, if it had been willing to escape from the Hollywood strictures of what defines a "teen picture".

Crazy/Beautiful (United States, 2001)

Director: John Stockwell
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jay Hernandez, Bruce Davison, Lucinda Jenney, Rolando Molina, Taryn Manning
Screenplay: Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi
Cinematography: Shane Hurlbut
Music: Paul Haslinger
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2001-06-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1