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'Blow Dry'

Blow Dry' just can't cut through its unrealistic premise

Wednesday, March 07, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The purported comedy "Blow Dry" puts me in mind of a hideous oxymoron. Try to imagine Baz Luhrmann's joyously fluffy Australian movie "Strictly Ballroom" with the stench of death hanging over it.

Yeah, neither could I -- until, that is, I saw "Blow Dry."

"Blow Dry"

Rating: R, for some language and brief nudity.

Starring: Alan Rickman, Natasha Richardson, Rachel Griffiths.

Director: Paddy Breathnach.

Web Site:

Critic's call:


Luhrmann's film explored the backstage drama and cutthroat tactics of competitive ballroom dancing with the passionate abandon of the neophyte lead character, who was in love with both the discipline and his partner.

"Blow Dry," opening today at the Squirrel Hill Theater, explores an equally quirky tournament activity, championship hairstyling. But what little passion exists in the film is not for the craft itself but lies in the desperate motives of the characters, one of whom is trying to heal old wounds while the others are busy rubbing salt in them.

A couple of rookies do come along for the ride and even provide the semi-obligatory romantic attachment. But both get shunted to the sidelines quickly when the scissors start to snip.

The story begins when the backwater town of Keighley finds out it will host this year's National British Hairdressing Championship. The town's barber, Phil Allen (Alan Rickman), used to hold the title. But he lost the heart for competition -- and for life, it seems -- when his wife, Shelley (Natasha Richardson), left him 10 years ago on the eve of a tournament for another lover, Sandra (Rachel Griffiths), who was Phil's hairstyling model.

Shelley wants to enter the contest, as does Brian (Josh Hartnett), her son, who lives with his father and is learning the business from him. Phil, as might be expected, wants nothing to do with Shelley or Sandra or competing.

But at first, only Shelley knows why it is so important to her -- she is dying of cancer. Competing together in the tournament might be her last chance to reunite her shattered family.

The problem is that Shelley's ailment seems like nothing so much as a ploy to manipulate the audience's emotions. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy was more successful at turning bleak desperation into a wonderful affirmation of life in his first film, the unlikely smash hit "The Full Monty."

In that movie, the whole point of the unemployed steel workers turning themselves into male strippers was to reclaim their sense of manhood, which they felt they had lost along with their jobs and paychecks. Hairdressing has nothing to do with Shelley's ailment, nothing to do with her reasons for deserting her family except that it's how she met Sandra.

"The Full Monty" also dealt with realistic characters whom we could all recognize. So did "Strictly Ballroom," once you got past the bad wigs and funny clothes and began to honor the seriousness they visited upon what many people would consider a frivolous enterprise.

In contrast, the flamboyant competitors in "Blow Dry" -- including Ray (Bill Nighy), the defending champ and Phil's one-time rival who will stop at nothing to win -- make it look like the circus has just come to town. Ray's daughter, Christina (Rachel Leigh Cook), falls for Brian, but, like everything else in the movie, this romance exists strictly on the surface.

The film never explores why Shelley left Phil. It barely tells us how Brian feels about the desertion. Phil feels so sorry for himself that he can hardly be bothered even to get mad. He might as well be dead. It doesn't help that, when he's not working in the barber shop, Brian has a job at a local mortuary, where he practices his styling skills on each new batch of deceased.

Director Paddy Breathnach, in short, displays no skill at mixing pathos with comedy. His sense of humor is too far out, his stabs at emotion too feeble. This shouldn't surprise anyone who saw his previous films, the overpraised Tarantino-esque road film "I Went Down" and the grim "Ailsa," a study of obsession that ends up chasing its own tail.

The one outbreak of true feeling in the film bursts from Sandra's lips when she finds out Shelley lied about the state of her health. Only an actress as good as Griffiths could pull it off in these circumstances -- dressed as a character from "The Mikado" (she is searching for a costume for the last stage of the competition).

Otherwise, very little happens in "Blow Dry" that you wouldn't expect -- except for how phony it all seems.

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