Minnie Driver does her best, but, sadly, she gets no help from the movie’s producers (14 of them!). She gets no help from the screenwriter, whose only previous credit was Jerry Springer’s “Ringmaster.” Driver does not even get much help from first-time feature director (but two-time Best Actress) Sally Field. In other words, this is a bad movie.
The people in this movie can’t even be referred to as “characters” because they do not behave like any human being who ever thought, spoke, or breathed. The actors might as well be wearing signs that say, “Plot device!” as they are moved around the set like chess pieces, because that is the only possible explanation for their behavior. And basic elements of plot are slapdash or just missing.
Mona is a little girl who lives with a mother who does not seem to care much about her and with her mother’s out-of-work boyfriend, who does not like her at all. So, she makes her bedroom into a private world, decorated with cheery little signs that say things like, “Never give up!” and “U can do it!” For her, beauty pageants are a vision of perfection, grace, and validation. So, she decides that what she needs to make her feel beautiful and loved is to win one or maybe all of them. She earns money for lessons and braces and does statistical analysis of each year’s winners. She picks just one girl from school to be her friend — the one who can sew costumes for her.
When she grows up, Mona (Minnie Driver) is relentless. She is incapable of any thought that does not relate to winning a pageant. Her friend Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams) is happy to devote all of her efforts to Mona’s competitions, too. When obstacles arise, Ruby takes care of them, from smoothing over allegations of cheating at a pageant to becoming the mother of Mona’s child (Hallie Eisenberg, the little girl from the Pepsi commercials). A parent or guardian is ineligible to be Miss American Miss. And nothing must get in Mona’s way.
Beauty pageants certainly provide material enough for several movies, and some, like “Smile,” manage to do them justice. But this movie has no point of view, a wildly inconsistent tone, and no understanding of its characters — I mean people.
Is Mona supposed to be a caricature? Then you can’t expect all of America to adore her at the end. Is she supposed to be a likeable person with flaws? Then she can’t possibly be as overwhelmingly self-absorbed as she is throughout the movie. It isn’t just that she responds to a question about “human interest” by admitting that there just aren’t that many humans she finds interesting. It is more that her best friend is in prison on a murder charge and it never even occurs to her that she might want to, say, get her a lawyer? Come to the trial? Try to help her in any way? And does anyone think that it is a good thing to confess your biological relationship to your best friend’s daughter on national television? Or that the daughter would consider this good news?
The movie has some funny moments. Kathleen Turner is magnificent as a beauty pageant diva. One pageant contestant announces that she has a double degree in genetic engineering and cosmetology, and another has a ventriloquist act. When a woman goes into labor in a grocery store, Mona seizes the opportunity to get some good publicity and pushes her to the hospital in a shopping cart, singing, “Wind Beneath My Wings.” But these bright spots are just not worth the sloppy mess that comes along. Maybe sixty years ago Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins or Mary Astor might have pulled off this kind of a plot (come to think of it, they did, in “The Big Lie” and “Old Acquaintance”). Maybe thirty years ago, Carol Burnett could have pulled off a parody version. But with these people and in this decade, it is not just bad — it is positively annoying.
Parents should know that the movie has occasional strong language and sexual references (mild by PG-13 standards, but still vivid). Mona cheats in the pageants, causing serious damage to another contestent’s hand, without any remorse. Indeed the injured woman’s bitterness is portrayed with as much callousness as though the screenwriter shared Mona’s conviction that all that counts is winning. There is an out of wedlock pregnancy and a minor character commits suicide by taking pills.
Families who see this movie should talk about Mona’s comment that love is a language that has to be taught, and Ruby’s comment about letting bad things go. More cynical family members may want to count up the logical inconsistencies and plot holes.
Families who enjoy this movie will like “Smile” even more. And they may also enjoy “We’re Not Married,” a cute comedy in which Marilyn Monroe plays a married beauty queen who all of a sudden becomes eligible for the single woman competitions when it turns out that her wedding ceremony was invalid.