The marketing for Blow Dry makes much of the fact that the film is based on a script by the same writer who brought us The Full Monty. Undoubtedly, this strategy hopes to cash in on the international success of Simon Beaufoy’s tale of unemployed steelworkers who become somewhat famous when they start stripping for money. The triumphs of the small-town underdog are repeated in Blow Dry, this time finding for its heroes rapprochement, validation, and a little bit of fame in the back-stabbing world of competitive hairdressing.
The thematic similarities between Blow Dry and The Full Monty are rather obvious, yet the results couldn’t be more different. While The Full Monty achieves a modicum of comic and emotional successes, Blow Dry merely falls flat. Unlike the fabulous flips and towering high hair-do’s created by its hairdresser characters, Blow Dry looks more like a silly little comb-over that barely conceals the narrative bald spots underneath.
Small-town barber Phil Allen, previously an international superstar on the competitive hair-styling scene, has been cooling his heels in the working class Yorkshire town of Keighley for some ten years. The night before his last competition, his model Sandra (Rachel Griffiths) ran off with his wife/business partner Shelley (Natasha Richardson), leaving him alone to raise his and Shelley’s son Brian (Josh Hartnett). Well, not alone exactly, as (somewhat inexplicably) Shelley and Sandra remain in Keighley, and open up their own shop just a few doors down from Phil’s. Even so, it seems Phil has barely spoken a single word to his ex-wife and his ex-model for over ten years. This puts Brian in something of a pickle, as he is torn between his mum and dad, and always trying to negotiate the tensions in his parents’ love triangle.
It is in the relationship of Shelley and Sandra that Blow Dry tries to defy expectations we might have about a “hairdresser movie.” Along with the fey, mincing gay boy hairdresser stereotypes that we might expect, Blow Dry offers as well a romance between two fabulous lipstick-lesbians. This has the potential to be an interesting twist on homophobic prejudices, and the film might have questioned knee-jerk stereotypes of both hairdressers and lesbians. But it fails to do so, as its real concern is redeeming these failed parents and reuniting this “nontraditional” family. The film’s production notes reassert its own implicit lesbophobia, claiming the relationship between Shelley and Sandra is “one of the most unusual human stories explored” in the film. “Unusual”? According to whom?
“Blow Dry” opens as Keighley is set to host the annual British Hairdressing Championship, where the prize is the “Silver Scissors.” Phil has desperately tried to distance himself from and forget his previous life in hair, but here it comes back to haunt him, most flamboyantly in the form his arch-nemesis, Ray Roberts (Bill Nighy), who brings with him his assistant Louis (Hugh Bonneville) and half-American daughter Christine (Rachael Leigh Cook), which explains her distinct lack of accent (Josh Hartnett, on the other hand, does a pretty good job handling the Yorkshire lilt). You can already see where all this is going. If not, let me give you a hint, each team competing in the Silver Scissors is allowed to have four members. Four? Wait, that’s the number of people in our “nontraditional” family! Duh. Now all the film has to do is get them back together and working towards winning the contest.
Along the way, there are the requisite trials and tribulations. Brian falls for Christine, daughter of his sworn enemy, a burgeoning romance that the film clearly tries to set up as some Romeo and Juliet thang. Oof. Ray and Louis engage in a number of shenanigans in order to rig the contest and win a third consecutive Silver Scissors trophy. Shelley is dying from cancer, which she keeps from everyone, even her life-partner Sandra. Phil remains intractable for most of the movie, until he learns of Shelley’s illness and comes to the rescue in the final event of the style-off, and recaptures all the glory for Keighley’s own “The Cut Above” beauty salon, and in the process heals the hearts of his wounded family. It’s a pretty tiresome story to be sure.
But what about the hair? All else failing, might Blow Dry be saved by some truly dazzling hair artistry? Well, some of the styles paraded before the judges in the various stages of the competition are pretty cool. But not cool enough. Blow Dry never quite achieves the drag coiffure glamorama of the do’s in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, or the surreal, gravity-defying creations of Edward Scissorhands or even the ‘80s new wave camp styles of Liquid Sky. If stylish hair-styley flicks are your sort of thing, check out these other films instead, for, to paraphrase John Waters’ Hairspray, Blow Dry is not so much a hair-do as a hair-don’t.