Blow Dry
review by Paula Nechak, 9 March 2001

The deliberate, triumph-of-the-little-guy-over-bleak-odds earnestness and unlikeliness of The Full Monty or Billy Elliot might have been an omen of inevitable formulaic disaster for Irish director Paddy Breathnach's Blow Dry. After all, the film has been in the can at least a year, it's written by Simon Beaufoy, who also scripted The Full Monty, and its American distributor -- Miramax -- has released it with nary a whimper. And it follows on the very heightened heels of a film with similar -- if campier -- sensibilities, The Big Tease.

It's all enough to lead a viewer to believe no one had faith in the project. But I'd rather watch Blow Dry -- which was originally titled Never Better - any day than the over-zealous message of Billy Elliot if only because its cast is so damned fine and so capable of taking the predictable pap that defines this new wave of English working class comedy/dramas, and performing some revisionist miracles through sheer force and the charisma of talent and personality.

Transcending another predictable storyline, Brits Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy and Natasha Richardson, Australia's Rachel Griffiths and up-and-comer Yanks Josh Hartnett and Rachael Leigh Cook simmer surprisingly in this crockpot unspooling in the small town of Keighley, where the British National Hair Championships are about to take place.

The championships are a prickly thorn for its residents. Town barber Phil Allen (Rickman) has resigned himself to a third-class career after his wife, Shelley (Richardson) left him high and dry at a competition ten years earlier. Shelley ran off with Phil's hair model, Sandra (Griffiths), forsaking their son, Brian (Hartnett), marriage and a promising professional profile on the salon circuit.

Worse, Phil's old nemesis, Ray Roberts (Nighy), has re-emerged in order to claim the title and seal his name as champ of champs. Unaware of her dad's propensity for cheating and tilting the odds, Ray's daughter Christine (Cook) accompanies him on his grand prix appearance. In a Romeo-and-Juliet scenario, former childhood pals Brian and Christine reunite, replaying not a balcony scene, but a hair-coloring flirtation in the town's morgue and upon the recently deceased, whose hair "continues to grow" after they've expelled their last breath.

It's this kind of oddball precociousness that relegates the film to the grit-your-teeth pile of precious, tired scenes and yet Blow Dry plays better than it is because of its cast. Rickman allows us a real insight into Phil's shift in thinking and of heart and Richardson emits warmth and concern for the distaff family she would like to see reunited -- especially in light of a secret she harbors.

Still, as in almost every film she makes, it's Rachel Griffiths -- so libidinously good in Muriel's Wedding and Jude, and heartbreaking in Hilary and Jackie and My Son, the Fanatic -- who grabs every scene she's in and wrings the essence out of it.

There's a slow build to her emotional graft in this film, and while she appears frivolous and flighty in its initial moments, Sandra's chrysallis from flake to formidability feels real and grounded in her genuine love and affection for Shelley as well as a generosity of spirit that has overcome her relegation to the shadows due to the nature of her relationship. It could have been just another plot machination that grinds the film to a dead halt. And just when the temperature floats at a tepid degree, the heat turns up once again. In its climactic finale Griffiths ascends, raising the pulse with a show stopping turn that is pure theatrical dazzle. Had this cast not signed on to Blow Dry it would certainly deserve the less-than-stellar push it's been given. But this is an anomoly, the rare script that is actually made better because of its actors. The theory that even a bad actor can survive a good script works in reverse here; a mediocre script shines due to the sheer deftness of acting prowess and the outrageous fortune of its design team. Never mind that the writer and director are probably the least useful of presences on this set.

Directed by:
Paddy Breathnach

Starring:
Hugh Bonneville
Rachael Leigh Cook
Rachel Griffiths
Josh Hartnett
Heidi Klu
Bill Nighy
Natasha Richardson
Alan Rickman

Written by:
Simon Beaufoy

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying
parent or adult
guardian

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