Aloof, abrasive and insufferably arrogant people don't typically make for the most appealing people with whom to hang out. Why, then, do filmmakers so often make the mistake of assuming you want to spend 90 precious minutes with them? Beautiful Ohio fits snugly -- or is that smugly? -- in that curious genre of emotionally icy domestic drama.
Set in Cleveland in 1973, the film falls short of capturing the fragile, elegiac tone that characterizes such superior works as The Ice Storm and The Virgin Suicides. The Messerman clan fancies themselves to be an intellectual bunch. Self-absorbed patriarch Simon (William Hurt) sells insurance when he isn't quoting Einstein and Samuel Taylor Coleridge for dinner guests. Wife Judith (Rita Wilson) drops factoids about Chopin and spends her time correcting her husband's misattributions. Their eldest son, Clive (David Call), is an antisocial math genius with a sizable chip on his shoulder. Nice-guy younger son William (Brett Davern) -- the surrogate for the moviegoer -- finds himself vying for attention in the shadow of his gifted brother.
Growing up isn't easy for poor William, affectionately called "Sailor" by his dad, what with being surrounded by pretentious snobs for parents and a standoffish older brother who insists on speaking in a secret language with his best friend Elliot (Hale Appelman). For William, one of life's few bright spots comes in the form of a casual flirtation with Clive's beautiful girlfriend, Sandra (Michelle Trachtenberg), who has taken up clandestine residence in the Messermans' cramped basement.
Beautiful Ohio tosses in a few Seventies-era red herrings, chiefly Simon Messerman's apparent midlife crisis and his ambiguous relationship with the hot-to-trot next-door neighbor (Julianna Margulies), but the bulk of the narrative concerns William chafing against Clive's pot-addled disdain. The younger Messerman is consumed with trying to decipher that obnoxious language between Clive and Elliot, a quest that becomes something of an obsession.
What follows is a muddle of a mystery that doesn't go where you'd expect, but only because where it does go in the final 15 minutes makes no sense in the context of the 75 minutes that precede it. It's a truly tangential twist -- and one I won't reveal here -- made even less resonant because the characters involved are too unlikable to elicit much sympathy.
Director Chad Lowe and screenwriter Ethan Canin paint a few arresting moments, thanks largely to a strong cast, but Beautiful Ohio rarely gets more than skin deep.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the print transfer is adequate but beset by minor grain in several scenes. Skin tones are realistic and lines are strong.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is serviceable, although some dialogue is muffled in spots. For the most part, however, the track is clean, with modest use of rear speakers. Optional subtitles are in Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
Nothing to see here. Move along.
Beautiful Ohio isn't without a handful of compelling moments, but too much of it plays like a stepchild to Ang Lee's The Ice Storm. Stories stocked with arrogant and otherwise unlikable characters (think The Squid and the Whale or Smart People), at least the successful ones, will temper such unpleasantness with sharp writing or dark humor. Neither attribute really alleviates Beautiful Ohio.