Opening with “vintage” black-and-white footage of women from the Fifties huffing and puffing through antiquated exercise routines, set to Bruce Channel‘s “Hey, Baby,” the ostensible investigative documentary “America the Beautiful” establishes its de-facto glibness within seconds. Throughout the course of the film, further video montages will be set to such ferociously on-topic chestnuts as Right Said Fred‘s “I’m Too Sexy,” Marilyn Manson‘s “The Beautiful People,” and Letters to Cleo‘s “I Wanna Be a Supermodel,” ironically backing images of primped, preening girls or magazine model cut-outs. Director Darryl Roberts‘s mode of address is so hackneyed and juvenile, and the editing strategies and muddy non-aesthetic so predictable, that one has to try and look beyond the surface of things to find any value here; after all, that’s what Roberts himself has attempted to do in making it.
Narrated, rather awkwardly, by its maker and occasional leading man and “truth”-seeker, “America the Beautiful” is fashioned as a vaguely Michael Moore-esque diary film, in which Roberts’s average Joe goes out into Big Bad America to document its (gasp) fascination with beauty. The results of his search are as wide-ranging as his cursory topic, and so wildly unfocused that the film seems to suffer from some form of ADD — in the odd moment that Roberts will train his camera on a somewhat compelling subject or reveal a nugget of almost worthwhile data, he’s already jumped to a new train of thought. There’s quite an overhaul of cultural diagnosis going on here, unfortunately little of it is depicted or expanded upon in any revelatory way: the effects of unattainable beauty imagery on young girls, teenage bulimia, media image manipulation, cosmetic surgery malpractice, the dangers of FDA-approved beauty products, etc. By the time Roberts visits the webmasters of the online dating service beautifulpeople.net, framed as a fascistically exclusive club, one’s eyes may begin to cross, wondering how and if any of these strands will meaningfully dovetail, and whether anything will be uncovered other than that (surprise!) it’s all about the bottom line: Beauty sells. Really?!
What interest there might be in “America the Beautiful” — besides as a conceivable addition to junior high school health classes, and that’s not necessarily meant as a backhanded insult — lies in the personage of its seemingly genuine director-protagonist. Roberts is a relatively appealing, if possibly faux-naive everyguy, and there’s something to be said for a self-professed straight dude devoting years of his life to exposing the falseness of images of femininity (if audiences won’t be learning anything they didn’t know already, then there’s a glimmer of pleasure to be gleaned in watching Roberts try to enact his own journey of self-edification). But the fact that these issues are endemic to most of the Western world, and certainly much of Asia, is not once broached. Diagnosing these as strictly American problems is disingenuous and trendy at best, forced cynicism riding the Michael Moore gravy train.
Roberts also frames his film by charting the nascent career of thirteen-year-old wannabe model Gerren Taylor, who craves the spotlight of the runway and whose mother seems willing to allow her to follow her kiddie dreams. While Taylor’s growth habits and obstacles might not make for compelling cinema, the fact the she and Roberts are African-American does add another, grounding dimension to the film, not only because audiences are infinitely more used to documentaries from white points of view, but because definitions of what separates black and white beauty are so little discussed (the film could have benefited from more here). And although it often seems as though one more subplot will crush poor, precarious “America the Beautiful,” the film’s general discussion on accepted beauty in terms of skin tone reaches a rather fascinating crescendo during a sudden altercation between Gerren and a casually racist makeup artist (who wants to make her skin five shades lighter). Though Roberts obviously doesn’t have the coverage he should have (the scene confusingly picks up in medias res), there’s a directness to the blow-up that the rest of the film, with its over-rehearsed, new-millennium doc strategies, severely lacks.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]