1 Hr. 53 Mins.
Smile April 8, 2019
mile (1975) is about a Santa Rosan beauty pageant. Yet the actual ritual, which comes on a Saturday, is among the most minute of its worries. In the film, the lives and dramas of the people who play a part in the ceremony, as written by Jerry Belson, are much more interesting. Of concern here is the pageant’s head judge, the wily Bob (Bruce Dern), who runs the local car dealership and speaks and lives only in
platitudes, and whose son, Bob, Jr. (Eric Shea), is caught, red-handed, taking pictures of the contestants while they’re changing. Pivotal, too, is the head den mother, the prissy Brenda (Barbara Feldon), and her failing marriage to the town drunk, Andy (Nicholas Pryor).
Also of interest is the head custodian and his assistant, who know the pipes in the gymnasium at which the event’s being held are about to break but would rather sip on the liquor they’ve stashed in the Pepsi machine. There’s also the hired orchestra, who ogle the girls while they play; also key, of course, are the girls, of whom many eventually realize that the “this isn’t a competition” saying is total bullshit.
Smile runs long at 113 minutes. And perhaps the director Michael Ritchie, who had helmed just three films beforehand, bit off more than he was used to chewing on in trying to put these dramas and their accompanying themes — small-town hypocrisy, objectification, sexism, etc. — through the parodistic wood chipper as if he were Robert Altman. Yet the film, tart though not mean-spirited, is ripe and funny. That it tries to goad at so much isn’t an issue per se, since most of the goading’s lean. It captures the ephemera of pageant prep (and later execution) with a persuasive documentary-like finish; it latches on to absurdities without leaning too heavily into them.
Better yet, its characters feel distinct in ways players in dark comedies frequently don’t. Bob makes for a clear-eyed embodiment of a man who cannot break free from the annals of the snug status quo but also never bothers to. Andy, by contrast, is a 35-year-old who realized long ago that everything about his life is just a facsimile of the American dream. Even the contestants, who might have been rendered cartoonishly by an apathetic screenwriter, are vivid. (Melanie Griffith, Annette O’Toole, and Colleen Camp, who would go on to bigger and better things, fare particularly well here.) In an ironic twist, the girls who have the most screen time — and who, early in the movie, start noticing that this level of exploitation is pretty awful — are the ones who don’t win. Sticking out, and being doubtful, will leave you empty-handed. If you keep smiling and do what you’re supposed to, maybe you’ll be named Young American Miss. A-