(by Dustin Putman
The "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale is transplanted to high school and given a modern spin in "Beastly," a tame, perfunctory romantic drama with a lack of sophistication that probably won't be making anyone over the age of about thirteen swoon. Writer-director Daniel Barnz, who last made 2009's touching "Phoebe in Wonderland," has an eye for slick surfaces, and it's just as well. This movie, based on the novel by Alex Flinn, is all surface. Aside from that and the occasional good song on the soundtrack (Death Cab for Cutie's "Transatlanticism" could make a garbage bag commercial transcendent), everything in "Beastly" seems off, from the casting and performances to the cheap production values to the central love story that never clicks the way it should. "What can I say, I'm substance over style," says the bookish, pretty Lindy Owens (Vanessa Hudgens). If only. Article continues below
Kyle Kingston (Alex Pettyfer) is popular, wealthy, and has the sculpted physique of a model. He is undaunted by the competition as he runs for class green initiative president, and his news anchor father, looks-conscious Rob Kingston (Peter Krause), makes him something of a celebrity by association. When Kyle jilts witchy classmate Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) for the last time, she casts a spell that leaves him heavily tattooed, scarred and bald, "as aggressively unattractive on the outside as you are on the inside." If he doesn't find someone to love him within one year, he will be forced to remain this way forever. Kyle's father can't take the transformation and promptly moves him to a private house on the outskirts of the city. With a maid (Lisagay Hamilton) and a blind tutor (Neil Patrick Harris) but no one to truly take care of him, Kyle grows antsy and becomes innocently infatuated with Lindy. She doesn't know he's the snotty boy from their old school—Kyle tells her his name is Hunter—and it doesn't matter. When her life is suddenly put into danger and she finds herself living under the same roof as Hunter, the two of them draw closer. Lindy seems to be able to look beyond his disfigurement, but in order for her to love him enough to change him back, he's first going to have to make some alterations to who he is on the inside.
"Beastly" comes off as a rough draft of a promising idea, the relationship between Kyle and Lindy never getting out of first gear. Yes, they both have their own daddy issues—Lindy's father is a junkie, Kyle's only ever corresponds with him through text message—but they otherwise don't have much going on upstairs. They have no real thoughts or ideas or ambitions to talk about, and so their scenes together mostly consist of eye-gazing and conversations about how Lindy doesn't find Kyle physically repulsive ("I've seen worse," she eloquently tells him). When they do almost kiss, well, wouldn't you know the moment is shattered by a cell phone ringing? The core concept of Kyle being shed of his blond mane and handsome looks in order to see that there's more to a person—more to himself—than he ever bothered to see is what the "Beauty and the Beast" story is all about. Kyle is no monster, though; in fact, for someone who looks like he was burned in a house fire while being accosted by a branding iron and out-of-control tattoo artist, he is still rather pretty. That Lindy never even passingly asks Kyle what happened to him is an egregious oversight in Daniel Barnz's screenplay, signaling just how shallow their love story runs. As for why Kyle feels the need to hide his identity and pose as someone named Hunter when he already knows Lindy had a thing for him in school is never explained or reconciled.
In his two previous starring roles in 2006's "Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker" and 2011's "I Am Number Four," Alex Pettyfer has not impressed. To put it less kindly, he has stunk up the joint with an absence on-camera of relatability and charisma. As Kyle, Pettyfer is maybe ever so slightly better here, though one has to wonder if that is only because the heavy make-up job is shielding his blank expressions and unconvincing emotional arc. He is matched by Vanessa Hudgens (2009's "Bandslam"), as Lindy, whose sweet smile is all she brings to the part. Together, these two are the blankest romantic leads in some time. Because they're so underwhelming, Mary-Kate Olsen (2008's "The Wackness") is able to outshine them both as practicing witch Kendra. There is something very interesting about Olsen's turn, the way she is able to project such depth and tough-on-the-outside, vulnerable-on-the-inside longing without being given hardly anything to work with on the written page. One finds themselves wishing the core romance were between Kyle and Kendra, instead; she's an original character worth following, whereas Lindy is dull as can be. As tutor Will, who doesn't actually tutor so much as just lurk around Kyle's house, Neil Patrick Harris (2008's "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay") is criminally underused. So, too, is Peter Krause (2004's "We Don't Live Here Anymore"), whose subplot with son Kyle is never dealt with in the second half, his role boiling down to a punchline tag at the end.
"Beastly" is a slipshod teen sudser starring 20-year-olds playing 17-year-olds penned as 12-year-olds. The ultimate outcome is blatantly predictable—understandable, considering its original source—but what cannot be anticipated is just how neglectful the narrative is in following through with its story threads and adequately developing the bond that grows between Lindy and Kyle. Too on-the-nose for its own good—a scene where Kyle professes his love to her is underscored by a song with the refrain, "falling in love with you"—and cheapened by bad sets—the exterior of the high school could be the poster child for studio backlots—the film is transparent on more levels than can be counted. As for Kyle, does he really ever change his ways, or is it a case of a bad movie telling us outright that he has and expecting us to accept it wholesale without any evidence to back the claim up? Considering how little brain power there is on hand, a betting man would be wise to go with the latter option.