America the Beautiful

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Open: Friday, Aug. 1 (New York) (First Independent Pictures)

Darryl Roberts' "America the Beautiful" tackles a big and provocative subject -- America's obsession with physical beauty -- and gets utterly lost in the process.

As the husky Chicago radio and TV personality moves around the country with side trips to London and Paris, thrusting his mike toward people and doctors in the glamour business, Roberts clearly wants to enter Michael Moore territory albeit without the confrontational approach. He has even hired Moore's editor, Kurt Engfehr. But the director-narrator gets easily sidetracked, worse even than Moore, with tangential issues. The film quickly loses its focus.

Nonetheless, Roberts hits gold more than once. His subject is so incendiary that this still makes for a riveting look at a nation in denial about its absurd obsession with an idealized sense of beauty. It's just too bad the film plays like a pilot for a documentary TV series with so many worthy of more in-depth examination. Certainly, no one is going to leave this movie and talk about something else.

Here's a sample of compelling nuggets Roberts digs up: None of the doctors who appeared on "Dr. 90210," a TV reality series about Beverly Hills plastic surgeons, was, as of the making of this film, a board certified plastic surgeon. Potentially toxic ingredients find their way routinely into perfume. A top magazine editor insists, on camera, that her job is to make people who are not interesting like Paris Hilton seem interesting.

Terrific "dirt," but this has little to do with the film's theme of how people, young people in particular, are so bombarded with images of unreal beauty featuring supermodels and pop icons that the nation is suffering an onslaught of low self-esteem, body dismorphia and eating disorders.

The movie gets really hijacked, understandably so, by its own fascination with the story of Gerren Taylor. She is a Los Angeles girl who with her stage mother's enthusiastic support enters the world of supermodels at age 12. That's not a typo. At age 12! Booking runway shows in Los Angeles and New York at 13 and a has-been at 14, Gerren's nearly tragic story is an unbelievably rich cautionary tale with an intriguing cast of characters and telling incidents happening right oncamera.

Interviews with twentysomething guys, chugging beer and giving vent to ideas about men and women apparently distilled from watching too much Internet porn amply illustrate the objectification women are up against in this society. Classroom interviews with younger and much smarter kids thankfully demonstrate that many of our youth do see through Madison Avenue's salvos of sexist tripe.

The movie ends with a soapbox plea from Roberts to seek inner beauty, accompanied by a barrage of self-help Web sites and publications that make "America the Beautiful" feel more like an infomercial than an honest docu. Too bad, for a great opportunity and some amazing footage get lost.

Production: Sensory Overload Prods. Screenwriter and director: Darryl Roberts. Producer: Kurt Engfehr, Stela Georgieva, Darryl Roberts. Executive producer: Michael Beach, Dennis Damore, Terence Wright, Henry Anderson. Co-producer and supervising editor: Kurt Engfehr. Director of photography: Terence Wright. Music: Pedro Peraza. Editors: Charles Miller, Stela Georgieva. 106 minutes.


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