Why would a film by the writer of "The Full Monty" sit unreleased on a studio's shelf for seven months? It happened to "Blow Dry," a Simon Beaufoy comedy about battling hairdressers that was originally scheduled for release by Miramax in August 2000, then shunted from September to October to this week.
Now we know what the problem was: "Blow Dry" is a frustrating melange of styles and themes that resembles "Monty" on the surface, yet really belongs in the hard-to-market genre "lesbian hair stylists with incurable diseases." Oh, another one of those.
Like "Monty," "Blow Dry" concerns itself with the effect of glamour on a humble people. In this case, they're the inhabitants of Keighley, England, a tiny Yorkshire town that plays host to the British Hair Federation's "Hair 2000" championships. The gray dreariness of the little burg clashes with the outlandish colors and flamboyant fashions of the visiting hair experts, all of whom look exactly like Siegfried and Roy. Even the men.
At first, there's no local presence in the tournament. That's because the two top contenders -- barber Phil Allen (Alan Rickman) and stylist Shelley Allen (Natasha Richardson) -- are estranged ex-spouses. A decade ago, Shelley left Phil to take up with a woman named Sandra (Rachel Griffiths), the latter pair becoming lovers and partners in their own salon. (How small can Keighley really be if it has a lesbian couple and two hair cutteries?)
The arrival of "Hair 2000" points the way to reconciliation, but only if the family can come together to defeat Ray Robertson (Bill Nighy), a perpetually cheating competitor who's an old rival of both Phil and Shelley. Further complicating the situation, Phil's son and assistant, Brian (Josh Hartnett), falls for Ray's daughter, Christine (Rachael Leigh Cook).
Our expectation that "Blow Dry" will remain a light romp is dashed by the revelation that Shelley is entering the final stages of cancer. The sight of the beautician removing her wig to reveal her thinning hair is striking, but also emblematic of a film that unwisely tends toward the grave (pardon the expression). In a running gag, Brian practices his scissors-wielding technique on the corpses at a local funeral parlor. Fortunately, he doesn't whip out a canister of Stiff Stuff.
The dissonance between mortal thoughts and follicle-punishing lunacy prevents "Blow Dry" from ever finding its feet: Once you've introduced the big "C" as a script element, sky-high bouffants don't look so funny anymore. (To cite a recent analogue, there's a reason why Best in Show was about dog fanciers and not, say, medical examiners.) Still, the excellent cast rewards our continued attention. Richardson and Rickman are sturdy leads, and Griffiths is a paragon of dignity, even when the script has her dressing up as (shudder) a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. The weak link is Heidi Klum, whose role as a two-timing hair model pokes fun at her public image but proves that she can't act her way out of a bag of hot rollers.
Richardson et al are so good, in fact, that their performances are almost a hindrance to the story as written. We can't comprehend why these intelligent, often solemn characters are devoted to the creation of zero-gravity hairstyles the film wants us to recognize as ridiculous. It doesn't help that the citizens of sleepy Keighley are unimpressed by the competition, whose import is obviously restricted to its participants. After the first day's events, the local newspaper announces, "Few Highlights at Hair 2000." Too right, mate. If you don't care, why should we?