Small Budget, Big Payoff
Who needs arthouse pretension or blockbuster hype when Betty does so much with so little?
Thursday, June 7, 2001
You want spectacle and bombast? Go see Pearl Harbor or Moulin Rouge. But if you want a simple, unpretentious film that will ignite more than a few chuckles, go see Betty...tonight. It''s getting yanked from the theater after a way-too-brief one-week run, but you won''t find many flicks this summer that are as sharp, witty and to-the-point as this debut feature by writer/director Richard Murphy. It''s a breath of fresh air in theaters stale with the stench of blockbuster puffery.
You can''t say Betty has an overwhelming story arc: Betty Monday (Cheryl Pollak, who also co-produced the movie along with Murphy and Stephen Gregory), a world-famous actress of the Julia Roberts variety, has walked off the set of a $70 million movie and gone into hiding in a Palm Springs-like retirement community. She''s fed up with acting and figures there are more earthy, real-world things to do with her life. To that end, she tries her hand first at pool cleaning, then at becoming a golf pro, and finally at selling a pain-killing ointment. After a variety of misadventures, Betty realizes she''s an actress, pure and simple, and returns to the set.
What makes Betty work are the characters and the pace at which the storyline is delivered. First and foremost is Betty herself: fast-talking, neurotic, demanding, shrill and frail all at once. Pollak shines at delivering a Betty who is both vulnerable and easy to hate as she muddles her way through one situation after another. It''s a brilliant, if not exactly original, satire lampooning divas whose only rightful place in the world is onstage, where they can be adored from afar. This is not the kind of character or style of acting that would ever attract the attention of mainstream award presenters. That''s too bad, because Pollak definitely deserves something for her deft and compelling portrayal. Hopefully, the cult following this movie is sure to achieve will be enough.
As Fred, the poolman to whom Betty attaches herself, Stephen Gregory delivers a nicely laid-back and laconic character who doesn''t quite know what to make of his new apprentice. Ron Perlman ("Beauty and the Beast") gives his door-to-door salesman a white-suited, seductive, Southern charm; if there''s a wise man (or woman) in the lot of these characters, it''s Perlman''s character. His self-serving gravity plays nice counterpoint to the general chaos surrounding him.
Completely, absolutely and delightfully over the top is Holland Taylor ("The Practice") as Betty''s manager/therapist, Crystal Ball. As we find out through phone conversations, Betty''s disappearance has driven Crystal to foul-mouthed, bleating distraction. But even though we''ve been warned, we''re not really prepared for the manic maelstrom that attends Crystal''s presence throughout the film.
In a way, Betty is the cinematic equivalent of commedia dell'' arte--or maybe Saturday-morning cartoons. The characters are all broadly drawn and equally broadly performed as the movie rips along at a pace that barely allows the humor of one line or visual image to register before the next is delivered.
And, without sounding too prudish, it''s refreshing to see a laugh-out-loud comedy that didn''t have any fart jokes, sodomized pies or semen dripping from the ceiling. (OK, OK...there was the brief scene with the phone going off in the bathroom, but the humor didn''t really have anything to do with body functions--it was more about being assaulted in one of our most vulnerable moments.) Instead, Betty relies on its characters and its situational humor.
And there are some wonderful visual images, too. At one point, Betty, responding to a pool emergency, appears wearing shorts, work boots, pouch, little oval sunglasses and short-sleeve blouse. It''s an image that avid video gamers should recognize immediately: conceptually and visually, it''s a dead ringer for the early Lara Croft from the "Tomb Raider" game series. But what makes the scene priceless is Pollak''s drop-dead, flawless imitation of the computer-generated Croft''s movement and posture. Angelina Jolie should look out: There''s a good Lara Croft impersonator in town and, based on the trailers for this summer''s Tomb Raider movie, it isn''t Jolie.
If you''re reading this review after Thursday, you''re probably too late to catch Betty in a local theater. But keep your eyes peeled, and get your requests in to the local video stores. You want to see this show.
Betty... ( * * * * )Directed by: Richard Murphy
Starring: Cheryl Pollak, Stephen Gregory, Ron Perlman, Holland Taylor, Udo Kier and Don O''Donahue
Where: Osio Cinemas
When: Thursday only