There's a moment in the new movie 'Beastly' when Lindy, a manic pixie dream girl played by Vanessa Hudgens, describes the appeal of Kyle, a ultradouche classmate played by the eminently fetching Alex Pettyfer, where she hints at the hidden depths of emotion beneath his glossy, gorgeous surface. But she dismisses her thoughts as "catnip for sappy tools," which is sort of curious, since the film itself perfectly fits that description, albeit in an even less flattering way: 'Beastly' is the kind of melodramatic, moralizing tripe that absolutely no one can relate to, because it exploits primitive, one-dimensional archetypes in a story that isn't even smart enough to follow the long-since-hackneyed formulas from which it is stealing.
Dramatically inert and technically incompetent, 'Beastly' manages not to be as awful as the other worst movies of the year because unlike them, there was no hope for anything else; it was never not going to be awful.
Pettyfer, offering his second 'Twilight'-style star-crossed romance in as many months (following 'I Am Number Four'), plays Kyle, a square-jawed big-man-on-campus type who very literally celebrates the superficiality of outward appearances, and spares no effort being a horrible, hurtful person to anyone he doesn't find attractive. After deceiving a classmate named Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) whose jaundiced, heavily Hot Topic-influenced appearance conceals magic powers, she bestows a curse on Kyle that transforms him into a cross between Freddy Krueger and Robert Patrick's T-1000, if they were somehow both designed by Neil Gaiman.
Told he must find someone within a year who will say "I love you," Kyle holes up in a safehouse and is attended to by a Jamaican housekeeper named Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and an irreverent blind tutor named Will (Neil Patrick Harris). But when he becomes drawn to former classmate Lindy (Hudgens), who is herself in trouble, Kyle sees an opportunity to connect with another person and possibly lift Kendra's curse.
There's really almost no way to qualify how terrible 'Beastly' is from start to finish, but that's mostly because it seems like no one behind or in front of the cameras knows what they want to achieve, and then how technically to accomplish whatever that indeterminable idea is. Director Daniel Barnz, who previously made 'Phoebe in Wonderland,' wrote the screenplay for the film from a novel by Alex Flinn, and he seems only capable of communicating in clichés, hammering them home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the forehead.
For example, Kyle's dad, inexplicably played by Peter Krause (what sort of debts must he have had?), isn't merely an overachiever type who taught his kid to believe unwaveringly in surface appearances, he's literally incapable of being next to his son, and whisks him off to a refuge where Kyle will see no one, and more importantly, no one – including his dad, who disappears for the rest of the film – will see him. That his dad is successful enough to afford a safe haven for his horrible son is not just a moronically-simplistic way to sequester the story from any sort of real-world environment, but it betrays the most basic concept of the film, which is that he is supposed to learn a lesson from having to be around other people who will react to his disfigurement.
Meanwhile, Kyle's caretakers are somewhat predictably endlessly patient, and each has his or her reason for sticking it out with this brat (Zola is a poor, good-hearted immigrant trying to earn money, and Will is blind, and apparently has no other responsibilities than handing out life lessons). But the worst part of the film's narrative streamlining occurs with Lindy, whose father (I swear to God this happens) kills a drug dealer in front of the dealer's brother, and then sends Lindy to live with Kyle to protect her from being hurt in revenge. In other words, the movie opens and closes in a futuristic, posh high school that is in the district of New York that's within a bus ride of Macchu Picchu (according to the end of the story), but the rest of it takes place in a spacious townhouse that comfortably fits all of the characters and storylines Kyle needs in order to make his transformation back to beautifulness.
After watching Pettyfer in the also-formulaic but comparatively painless 'I Am Number Four,' I actually had some hope that he might possess some genuine acting ability, but if it exists audiences won't detect it here. Shrouded in idiotic make-up and spending the majority of the film huffing around in frustration, Pettyfer fails to convey the sense that he's actually changing, and his romance with Hudgens' character does not at any point in the film seem remotely sincere; admittedly, much of the fault for this lies in a script which offers nothing but "we're falling in love" moments every second the two share the screen, but as an up-and-comer, Pettyfer is going to need to come with more in the future.
Hudgens on the other hand is absolutely rudderless, playing a character who seems to be bemusedly self-aware that she's a quirky girl next door, the hard-working latch-key student to Kyle's overprivileged short-cutter. The movie's choice to make her father a drug addict, one supposes, could have been promising, giving her a little more substance than just the "I'm poor" girl who wins the rich boy's heart, but other than a montage of temper tantrums, she almost immediately forgets that her father is somewhere in the world avoiding a revenge-seeking drug dealer (who, by the way, should be smart enough to know not to give someone drugs without them paying for them) and instead focuses on sharing furtive glances with Pettyfer as the two trade poetry verses.
In the film's single most-cliched plot development, the almost-consummation of Kyle and Lindy's burgeoning love is interrupted by a phone call (that of course comes at the exact moment they're inches from kissing) telling Lindy that her father has suffered an overdose. Lindy later explains that she "had" to answer that call because it was distinguished by a special ring - you know, the whole "my dad is overdosing" ringtone. But sadly, there's no ringtone or call from the governor's office that can rescue sappy tools from this sub-moronic catnip, except their own better judgment, or possibly, a lack of enough weekly allowance to afford the price of a ticket.
Because when the best thing in a movie is the performance given by Mary-Kate Olsen, that's an ominous sign, and 'Beastly' is such an excruciating morality play that it feels more like a punishment to the audience than the characters. All of which makes one hope that viewers will in turn take their own revenge, if not forbidding these folks from working on any movies in the future, then at the very least insisting that none of them ever again work on the same one together.