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Palm Springs Film Review: ‘This Beautiful Fantastic’

Variety logo Variety 1/18/2017 Dennis Harvey
© Provided by Variety

There are no puppies, kittens or baby bunnies in “This Beautiful Fantastic.” That said, however, any restraint before the altar of adorableness is abandoned in writer-director Simon Aboud’s sophomore feature. Its heroine is so Amelie-like that she’s clad and coiffed like that pixie queen’s separated-at-birth English Rose twin. This winsome comedy may lack Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s high cinematic style, but it does hit the same general mark — which is to say, a sweet spot for some viewers that might induce sugar shock in others. Those seeking twee will get their fill when Samuel Goldwyn distributes the film Stateside, presumably later this year.

A foundling dumped as a babe in a banana crate — like Moses, but wackier! — on a Hyde Park orphanage stoop, Bella Brown (Jessica Brown Findlay of “Downton Abbey”) grows up “the oddest of the odd,” a misfit whose threadbare social skills and peculiar habits suggest mild Asperger’s with major OCD and a minor in agoraphobia. But this is the kind of movie in which mental health issues aren’t treated as such, but rather as mahvelous eccentricities that separate life’s more precious snowflakes from the sane, dreary, interchangeable and fully functioning rabble.

Every workday, Bella brings her saucer eyes and vintage blouses to a London research library where she’s terrorized by a control-freak boss (Anna Chancellor). At least she’s comfortable among the books, her private ambition being to write and illustrate a children’s tome. At home, her compulsions toward habit and order have led to extreme neglect of the rental flat’s rear garden. This is seized upon by next-door neighbor Alfie (Tom Wilkinson), a stock grumpy old man particularly bent out of shape when his abuse of genial young housekeeper/cook Vernon (Andrew Scott) sends the latter into Bella’s employ out of spite. Nonsensically blaming her for his narrowed culinary options, Alfie complains to Bella’s landlord, who gives her a month to restore the ruined garden or face eviction.

Hay fever-afflicted Vernon can be of little help in this endeavor, and our heroine must overcome her terror of unruly, dirty nature to brave even picking up a pair of pruning shears. But it turns out that Alfie, who’s more bark than bite, is an expert gardener who’s lured to offer instruction in exchange for a chance to again taste his ex-employee’s cuisine. Naturally, Grumblestiltskin eventually blossoms into a big ol’ love under prolonged exposure to Bella’s personal sunshine, while she sheds daunting mental hangups because, well, it’s convenient to the plot.

At the same time, she gets a suitably adorable romantic interest in Billy (Jeremy Irvine), a shambling library patron whose profession appears to be “maker of whimsical mechanical animals.” You can tell they’re made for each other — they’re the only two people here who have model-perfect looks yet act like knock-kneed wallflowers. It’s rather a surprise when they manage an actual first kiss; one expects them to rub noses.

Everything about “Fantastic” is designed to charm, and its success in that respect will depend upon the viewer’s susceptibility to cuteness and contrivance ladled on with some proficiency but no subtlety whatsoever. Despite the story’s surface idiosyncrasies, what’s underneath is a formulaic crowd-pleaser at its most basic, with Aboud’s script hitting a couple shameless notes of artificial pathos while heading exactly where you expect. The one-dimensional characters hardly tap the cast’s resources — it’s particularly dismaying to see Wilkinson essaying this uninspired rendition of a hoary stock figure — but they meet their minimal challenge with professional aplomb.

Unsurprisingly, the packaging for this “contemporary fairy tale” is all soft focus. It gets little weird in d.p. Mike Eley’s unexplained blurry closeups of flora — is this meant to be the perspective of a far-sighted Bella? — but otherwise hews to the expected cozy-whimsy aesthetic in visual design and musical contributions.

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