What It Is
As his name suggests, Kyle Kingson (Alex Pettyfer) is an heir apparent. His dad Rob (Peter Krause) is a TV newsman, focused on his career and, even more intently, his appearance. Of this Kyle is reminded daily, as his dad’s face is emblazoned on billboards and bus-sides, while the real thing barely glances his way at the kitchen table, because he’s too engrossed in his BlackBerry.
Kyle is following in his father’s footsteps. Determined to be popular at school, but too vain and self-centered to know how, he encourages less fortunate classmates to “Embrace the Suck,” that is, to accept their ugliness and adore his beauty. When he insults the eccentric Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) once too often, she uses her witchy powers to curse him, marking his face and body with scars, tattoos, and pustules. She ordains that he must find a girl to tell him she loves him — despite his outward appearance — within a year, or he will remain ugly forever.
Much like the Beast in the 1740 fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Kyle finds that girl, here named Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens). A work-study student with a difficult home life (her father’s an addict and she has to take care of him), she’s inexplicably drawn to Kyle even before his transformation: “There’s something underneath,” she says, “It’s catnip for sappy fools like me, to bring it out.”
Still, she’s a bit daunted when she first sees the new Kyle, now pretending to be “Hunter” (another obviously metaphorical name), in a house outside the city, where his dad has hidden him away. Here she joins a band of misfits: lonely Hunter, his levelheaded housekeeper Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton), and his blind tutor Will (Neil Patrick Harris). Each is missing something — Zola’s kids live in Jamaica, unable to get green cards, Will wants his sight back, and Lindy wants to get away from the “cage” she feels she lives in — but they’re such a warm and witty bunch that Hunter/Kyle eventually learns his lesson from them.
Why It’s Fun
The highly stylized Buckston Academy High School setting (super-expensive décor, along with lots of glass and high ceilings, make it seem like a museum) is at first rather striking. We’ve all seen a few too many high school movies featuring bullies and victims, vixens and nice girls, so this over-the-top start suggests we’re in on a joke with the movie. But the characters aren’t nearly so clever as their environment, and their routines — parties, confrontations, assemblies — are so very routine as to be boring.
The most fun part of the movie by far is Will, Kyle’s tutor. Once he moves in, even Kyle starts to sound like he has a thought in his head. Will’s joking is consistently funny, as is Harris’ delivery. He makes fun of Kyle and himself, ensuring we all know how rude and ridiculous the boy is being.
Who’s Going To Love It
Presumably, the movie will appeal to fans of the Alex Flinn novel on which it’s based, but given how ineptly the story is told on screen, these readers might actually be disappointed. Surely, it’s exciting for a certain demographic — tweenish girls — to see Kyle shirtless or to hear Lindy at last save him from his curse.
But the film is also pocked with awkward characterizations and inadvertent humor (at the screening I attended, self-proclaimed Alex Pettyfer fans laughed out loud at some of the silly dialogue). And so its emotional trajectory is uneven. When Kyle makes a discovery (hey, he should be interested in Lindy’s feelings, not only his own), his predictable step back (but he’s terrible at actually listening to her) makes him seem hapless and dim. By the same token, though Lindy’s supposed to be the bright and independent one of this duo (she likes Frank O’Hara’s poetry and the New York Rangers), her lapses in judgment (what can she possibly see in the first version of Kyle?) suggests she’s got some blind spots too.
What To Be Aware Of
The film relies rather heavily on stereotypes in its version of Zola. She’s wise and infinitely patient with the sometimes abominably insensitive Kyle, needing to explain to him that Lindy “can’t be bought” and also that she has not abandoned her children, but only been unable to bring them with her because of difficult immigration laws. (You’re guessing by now that Kyle really doesn’t get out much.)
A couple of the bewitching scenes are loopy in a visual sense: the frame warps and images blur, the shadows become pronounced. Connoting Kyle’s vertiginous internal state, it’s not so much scary as it is vaguely disconcerting.
One evening, Hunter/Kyle becomes so frustrated that he rides his Ducati motorcycle out into the dark, traffic-filled urban streets: the hectic camerawork again suggests his emotional chaos, and he drives very dangerously.
Some kissing between high school students at a party: the girls’ in the boy’s lap and he has his hands on her.
Lindy’s favorite meal is coffee and Jujyfruits, not exactly a healthy mix.
A mugger holds a gun on Lindy’s father, Kyle performs some rudimentary hitting and kicking, and the father shoots his opponent. The violence is not explicit, but it’s abrupt and takes place in a dark scary alley.
The movie includes mild language, like “hell” and “ass” (and “a**wipe”), a couple of “bullshi**s,” and one use of the word “damn” near the end.
3 out of 10
Director: Daniel Barnz
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens, Mary-Kate Olsen, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Neil Patrick Harris, Peter Krause
Studio: CBS Films
US Premiere: March 4, 2011
UK Premiere: April 15, 2011