The little Yorkshire burg of Keighley is abuzz over its selection as the location for the annual British hairdressers' competition. The contestants, some avid, some reluctant, include alcoholic former champ Phil (Alan Rickman); his estranged ex-wife Shelly (Natasha Richardson), who has incurable cancer, a fact she conceals from her lover Sandra (Rachel Griffiths); their son Brian (Josh Hartnett); Phil's old nemesis Ray (Bill Nighy) and his daughter Christina (Rachel Leigh Cook), Brian's childhood sweetheart.

Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the mysteriously popular The Full Monty, tries to recapture that working-class, underdog magic in Blow Dry and fails, utterly. The whole enterprise is awash in a combined farcical obviousness and drippy sentimentality to induce more audience groans than laughs. The ungrammatical, proletariat tones of the cast sound like gross affectation, nothing more. ("That were a good one, Phil," Shelly says, disgustedly, at one point.) Director Paddy Breathnach lays it all on with a trowel and the photography looks drab and fly-specked. Typical of the humor here is Brian's practicing hair techniques on corpses in a morgue. (One is given a wild punk do, with the reaction: "Looks like bloody Sid Vicious.") Hair styling is an undeniably lucrative, intricately technical and respectable profession, but you'd never know it from the mindlessly antic way it's presented or the hideous, prize-winning results. An ever-rattling airport arrival/departure sign is whimsically employed at the competition, and this provides the most compelling action in the movie. Beaufoy sinks to having a brain-dead model, played by Heidi Klum, demanding that her pubic area be custom-trimmed into a heart shape. And, naturally, there's more than a fair representation of bitchily competitive hairburners trying to sabotage one another.

But it's the script's maudlin aspects which prove really insufferable. Shelly's cancer is given the full, masochistically stiff upper-lip treatment, with her tearing off her wig to reveal the ravages of her chemotherapy and declaring, "At least you won't be able to mess around with my hair when I'm dead." Displaying an Anglo nobility unseen since Diana Wynyard, she cries, "I've tried chemotherapy, radio therapy, bollocky potions from China monkey's piss, you name it!" As if this weren't enough, the great Rosemary Harris must wear some undoubtedly uncomfortable, rheumy contact lenses to play her aged, blind, but oh-so-wise Mum, who has some drearily spine-stiffening words for her. The performers, unfortunately, must serve this shoddy, second-rate material and, with the exception of Rickman, who brings an authentic world-weariness to his role, seeming to almost sleepwalk through most of it, their efforts are unimpressive and often far too obvious.

--David Noh