Squarely aimed to appeal to Twilight fans looking for more Paranormal Teen Romance, Beastly is a modern retelling of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” set in a posh New York prep school. While the idea of taking a classic fairy tale that has already received a pretty definitive update and melding it with pretty girls wanting sullen boys seems colossally wrongheaded, Beastly honestly isn’t as bad as it could be. That’s not to say that it’s not absolutely gosh-awful, because it is, but it’s gosh awful in exactly the right ways and wraps in a wonderfully slight 86 minutes, making for a delightfully gaudy and trashy slice of “teen” entertainment, as perceived entirely by marketing.
Beastly, as its title suggests, follows the story of the Beast, played by Kyle Kingston (Alex Pettyfer), an obscenely wealthy and vain son of a famous, parentally-distant newscaster (Beastly’s angle is to blame Kyle’s jerkwad nature on his daddy issues, which it works tirelessly in the first half of the movie before dropping entirely in the second). Kyle wins the presidency of some thinly-described school club, and celebrates by publicly humiliating the piercing- and tattoo-laden school “witch,” Kendra (Mary Kate Olsen. Yes, that Mary Kate Olsen), for being a pug-fugly heifer-face, or something to that effect. Kendra responds by turning the pretty boy Kyle into an equally piercing- and tattoo-laden creature of so-called ugliness, though by allowing him to keep his washboard physique and slender build, Kendra effectively makes Kyle a Suicide Boy.
Of course, Kyle and his father will have nothing to do with his new, alternative look, and he’s given a private condo overlooking the Hudson, so that he may be spared the humiliation of being seen by other, equally-shallow classmates. In fact, the only person who showed Kyle any non-fake affection before his transformation is the humble, down-to-earth Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens), who attends the prep school on scholarship, tipping the audience off that, because she’s not of privilege, she’s an actually decent human being. Kyle seeks Lindy out and saves her from a murderous drug dealer, letting her stay under his roof until the whole thing blows over. At first, Lindy doesn’t take to him, and balks at his attempts to buy her affection with increasingly-expensive gifts, but as he opens his heart to her, she begins to see his kinder and gentler side, and then it’s all over but the crying (which a friend of mine actually did during our most recent viewing).
You may have noticed my many oblique references to the many material goods featured in the movie. This is because Beastly is, first and foremost, lifestyle porn. I was honestly blown away by the constant name-dropping of expensive brands like Dolce & Gabbona, Prada, and more, as well as the pie-in-the-sky wealth on prominent display by nearly every character, including and up to Kyle’s sky loft condo, which must cost more in one month than I make in one year.
The second thing Beastly is, or wants to be, is a movie about the Teen Experience; it valiantly attempts to punch up its workaday screenplay with modern, “hip” flourishes, and could not sound more forced if Diablo Cody stuck her head in midway through and began rambling on about Sonic Youth and her hamburger phone. Characters—grown characters—arbitrarily start speaking in “teen”-sounding neologisms (describing someone as “tool-y), and several important, plot-related shots are predicated on text messages, darting across the screen in a see-through montage promising dramatic heft (“Can’t be there 2nite. :(” The heart reels).
Combining white privilege, American teenagers, angsty romance, and wrapping it in a fairy tale guise sounds like the most surefire recipe for disaster that Man could possibly invent, but for some twisted, indefensible reason, it kinda worked for me. The over-the-top wealth and gratuitous “teen” vernacular works well with the fairy tale story, helping solidify the notion that the whole movie is a folk tale, but a modern one. Beastly doesn’t feel anymore “real” than Beauty and the Beast must have sounded to its original audience, but its heightened, exaggerated telling works well for the story, in the same way a pet-stained rug can, in the right venue, straight-facedly be presented as modern art.
In terms of the acting, there’s nothing abrasively “bad” about Beastly, though I’m certain there’s little that can be truthfully described as “good.” Both Pettyfur and Hudgens bring little insight and depth to their characters (beauty isn’t the only thing skin-deep), but their aggressively bland performances truly, honestly contribute to the above fairy tale stylization. More active and altogether interesting are Kyle’s blind tutor Will (Neil Patrick Harris) and live-in maid Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who both act as cyphers for Lumiere and Mrs. Potts from the Disney version, respectively. Since both actors realize that most of the audience will not care one iota for their collective existence, they give comically broad performances that don’t necessarily gel well with everyone else in the movie, but still entertain nonetheless.
For reasons my brain will never, ever feel good about, I actually enjoyed Beastly, in a sort of avante garde, tongue-in-cheek way. I will never own it on DVD, and my enjoyment and recommendation comes with a big ol’ asterisk, but if seen for what it is (or, perhaps, what it isn’t), Beastly is a satisfying, amusing exercise in the realm of so-bad-it’s-hilarious filmmaking.